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Driving Toward a New Model for Auto Manufacturing Education at Clemson University

Pat Waurzyniak
By Patrick Waurzyniak Contributing Editor, SME Media

In today’s rapidly changing manufacturing landscape, Clemson University (Clemson, SC) takes a fresh approach to manufacturing education for the nation’s future automotive engineers. Melding advanced manufacturing research with shop-floor technical skills, the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR), home to the nation’s only graduate department of automotive engineering, brings together an interesting mix with teaching practical shop-floor skills to both graduate research students and technical students from the nearby Greenville Community College.

Starting about five years ago, the Clemson engineering program began incorporating the systems integration side of manufacturing at CU-ICAR, which was founded in 2007, noted Laine Mears, Ph.D., BMW SmartState Endowed Chair of Automotive Manufacturing, professor and founding faculty member in the Automotive Engineering department at Clemson.

Laine Mears, professor and director, Clemson University Vehicle Assembly Center

“We really wanted to get a holistic look at automotive manufacturing,” said Mears, a fellow of SME and ASME. “Why not build a program that has graduate students and technical students, with all of them working on the same problem at the same time? Let’s define a new model for education.”

Clemson’s engineering students not only dive into their research, but also add shop-floor training in several key technologies—such as wearable sensing, robotic automation, data and analytics, smart inspection, and virtual planning with simulation—on the factory floor.

Questions abound in manufacturing on what will constitute the future digital factory. “We still don’t know what it is,” said Mears. “What do you guys [students] think it is? It’s a great opportunity.”

Marrying MFD with DFM

By integrating programs of manufacturing research with graduate students, engineering with undergraduate students, and technical expertise with technical college students in the same place, at the same time, on a systems-level, open-ended design problem, Clemson is aiming for a new national model, Mears noted.

Clemson engineering students perform a walkaround test on a BMW at the shop.
Image courtesy Clemson University

“Our theme is marriage of our new concept, Manufacturing for Design, adapting manufacturing systems in order to realize completely the designer’s intent, together with traditional Design for Manufacturing [DFM],” he said. “We do not want the manufacturing operation to be a restriction, but rather symbiotic with design so both disciplines can come to a full potential.

“This new assembly area allows us to do this through an environment that is flexible and adaptable, and not subject to production pressures, so we can be more bold and risky in the things we can try,” Mears said. “Failure is learning.”

Located on a 250-acre campus in Greenville, CU-ICAR is a one-hour drive from the main Clemson campus, and Mears said the university is doing more to bring together research-minded undergrads and graduate engineering students with technical students who have hands-on experience.

“When we started this program, we had discussions with OEMs and suppliers, so we know what’s missing,” Mears said. “We have students who do CAM or finite analysis really well,” but those students needed to learn more on how to integrate that knowledge with shop-floor approaches, adopt a systems integration concept, and learn why decisions are made.

Mears, director of the Clemson University Vehicle Assembly Center in Greenville, joined Clemson after spending more than 10 years in the auto industry, working as a manufacturing engineer and engineering manager for Hitachi Automotive and Swedish bearing manufacturer SKF before getting his master’s and Ph.D. at Georgia Institute of Technology. The holistic look at automotive manufacturing was desired in part because “we were more successful in research, and we wanted to know ‘where do we go next?’ The technology is really interesting but … we were not reaching deep enough into the technical side,” he said.

Students working together with a KUKA collaborative robot on automotive assembly tasks at the Clemson University Vehicle Assembly Center.
Image courtesy Clemson University

When funding became available from Greenville about two years ago, Clemson jumped in and began developing the space that became Clemson Vehicle Assembly Center (VAC). “We said ‘why don’t we take up that space and work together, and let’s develop the next wave of automotive engineers,’” Mears said.

The result was establishing the Center for Manufacturing Innovation in 2016, with two waves of programs: an open-ended manufacturing research project and a system build and programming project. “We’re still designing it,” Mears added.

Working together, technical students and university researchers can find new ways to approach automotive manufacturing problems. “We’re just getting started with this. It’s not a big, structured program,” Mears noted. “We’re looking for this cross-pollination. You need it and you don’t have it today.
“As an undergrad, students don’t talk to technical college students,” he added. “Now we put them together and learn some interesting things. I’m excited about this.

“If we are thinking big, about how manufacturing is going to be, we have to completely rethink design and assembly,” he added. As an example, you can look at today’s advanced automotive braking systems, which have changed little over the years. “When you brake, you have pads squeezing a disc,” Mears said. “It’s incremental thinking.”

A Growing Automotive Industry

A Clemson student works with a collaborative Universal Robot to extract key data shown in Virtual XDK software. Image courtesy Clemson University

A big boon to the program and another piece of the puzzle is working closely with the many BMW engineers nearby. “BMW, from the top management, is sort of a step above,” Mears said. At BMW’s plant, after its two shifts are finished, the company allows Clemson engineering students to pair up with BMW engineers for invaluable hands-on experience in workcells, where they’re teamed up with experts in the industry for a few hours in the middle of the night.

Along with the growth in local automotive manufacturing, the Clemson automotive engineering program has blossomed, with about 150 master’s students and 60 Ph.D. students. “It’s growing,” Mears said. “When I designed the program it was for 100 students.” Automotive interest in the South Carolina also has boomed, with Volvo starting up a new factory, he added, located nearby in Newberry, and Mercedes is adding capacity at its plant in Ladson, SC.

Mears’ teaching focuses on manufacturing processes and quality. In addition to working with BMW, the program has had help from tire designer Michelin. Having students working in the factory helps close the loop, Mears noted. “We don’t want to play it safe. That really drove the design of our assembly center in Greenville.

“We can break it and we encourage it,” Mears added. “If we’re not failing, we’re not pushing hard enough.”

The Clemson MINI Deep Orange 7 concept car developed by Clemson’s automotive engineering students. Image courtesy Clemson University

With three stations for vehicle production, the Clemson students get a lot of hands-on experience in design and manufacturing, he added. “We’re trying to extend that to manufacturing,” he said. “Be creative in your manufacturing!”

It helps if students can look at manufacturing for design, rather than design for manufacturing, he said. “We have to start thinking like that,” Mears said. “Design for manufacturing means the manufacturing processes limit the design.”

CU’s Deep Orange project is an example of this way of thinking, which frees students to get more innovative than in the past. “They’re coming out with creative designs; it’s like a concept car show,” Mears said. The Deep Orange 7 is the latest design, with a production BMW body shell.

To build the custom car, students are encouraged to change the manufacturing processes to come up with the best design. “The freedom of this factory is that we built this factory to be modular,” Mears said, “so we can change it.”

Linking Process and Structure in Friction Stir Scribe Joining

In their paper, “Linking process and structure in the friction stir scribe joining of dissimilar materials: A computational approach with experimental support,” authors Varun Gupta, Piyush Upadhyay, Leonard S. Fifield, and Timothy Roosendaal of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Xin Sun of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Phalgun Nelaturu and Blair Carlson of General Motors Research and Development discuss this joining technique from a computational perspective. Their paper, published in Vol. 32 of the Journal of Manufacturing Processes, is available online at

Scribe interaction with the bottom steel plate in the form of metal cuttings-the top aluminum plate has been suppressed from the output for better visualization. Contour plot indicates the volume fraction of steel plate material in the Eulerian mesh. Image courtesy Elsevier Ltd.

Friction stir welding (FSW) is a popular technique to join dissimilar materials in numerous applications. The solid state nature of the process enables joining materials with strikingly different physical properties. For welds in lap configuration, an enhancement to this technology is made by introducing a short, hard insert—a cutting scribe—at the bottom of the tool pin.

A thermo-mechanical computational model employing a coupled Eulerian-Lagrangian approach is developed to quantitatively capture the morphology of these interlocks during the FSW process. The interface morphology, coupled with the predicted temperature field from this process-structure model, can be used to estimate the post-weld microstructure and joint strength.

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