Remote control in the magic of manufacture

March 13, 1998

Frank Booty reports on video conferencing projects that put students in control of advanced manufacturing technology

More than 4,000 students in the United Kingdom are using videoconferencing and design software systems to learn skills in computer numerically controlled (CNC) and robotic manufacturing techniques.

Rapid developments in communications and computer technology have had major impacts on the way businesses operate. But the effect on the educational sector has been limited. The result has been an imbalance between the requirements of companies seeking employees with the necessary skills and the ability of educational establishments to supply suitably skilled personnel.

Now, a Yorkshire-based company, Denford of Brighouse, has identified the potential of videoconferencing as an educational tool by incorporating the key element of application sharing to enable staff and students to open notebooks, documents, and drawing files, and to work together to solve problems.

Denford pioneered the use of CAD/CAM via videoconferencing, enabling staff and students in different areas of the country to design and manufacture at a distance.

A report Manufacturing: the video advantage last autumn and sponsored by videoconferencing company PictureTel assesses how video and data conferencing can help organisations worldwide to respond to competitive pressures and challenges. What challenges? As growth rates remain marginal, the challenges are the need to continually improve, to gain an effective return on investment, and to optimise spending.

Videoconferencing is enabling companies to speed up working practices and processes, improve communications dramatically, and share information around the company more efficiently. The results are "step change benefits" or radical leaps forward in the way organisations perform. This results in increased productivity and profitability, more innovative working practices on the shop floor, and better management of the whole company.

Andrew Denford, managing director of Denford, says, "We are committed to raising the profile of manufacturing and engineering within education. We have developed several distance learning and concurrent engineering initiatives enabling schools, colleges and universities to link via videoconferencing to manufacturing centres in the UK and overseas."

Denford sells machine tools and robotic equipment for the educational sector, and offers solutions through Intel Proshare videoconferencing, a Microsoft Windows-based package running from a standard PC. Face-to-face communication is handled over ISDN technology. The company offers six simples steps to breaking down classroom barriers:

1. Student creates design on CAD/CAM software on a (stand-alone or networked) PC

2. Student and teacher participate in live videoconference with remote manufacturing centre or "Denford on demand" facility

3. Student's design is downloaded to remote manufacturing centre where it is discussed

4. CNC file containing student's design is created by remote manufacturing centre

5. Student's design is manufactured on a CNC machine while student views via remote video camera

6. Finished component is evaluated and shown to student and then posted back to the school.

The initiatives have brought together three main areas, which feature prominently on the Government's agenda: education, information/communications technology, and manufacturing. They have met the criteria for the National Grid for Learning by adding Internet applications, email and videoconferencing.

Waltham Forest College in North East London has 15,000 enrolments following a full mix of attendance patterns. Most students are drawn from the local borough plus some six surrounding ones. An advanced engineering centre was opened in September. Video links are to be set up with schools soon. Plans are still being formulated.

Gordon Woodcock, associate school manager in the school of engineering, says: "The background of a typical student is one employed but with limited skills - that is, they have manual skills but not CNC skills. We aim to upgrade them."

The college has a Denford configuration comprising automated storage and retrieval system, palletised conveyor, a CNC lathe and mill equipped with robot arms, and visual inspection system.

Funding typically derives from local education authority contributions, Training and Enterprise Councils, Denford, and other corporate sponsors.

The engineering skills development centre at City of Bristol College, which opened last November, is linked to three schools in a pilot project (Fairfield, Withywood, and Nailsea). The centre is equipped with three milling machines, three lathes and videoconferencing equipment from Denford. Centre manager Geoff Morgan says: "We're running the pilot with three schools this year, then moving to 12 next term. In four years' time we believe there could be 40 schools involved. Ultimately the span could cover primary to year 11. Using the videoconferencing facility, schools undertake computer design projects under the guidance of school and college staff and download designs to us for manufacture. Pupils can watch their projects being machined, which once completed are posted back to them at school."

The Bristol college has three full size industrial machines as well as the Denford kit. CNC is used as part of the courses the college runs for HNC, BTech national certificate, and City and Guilds qualifications. The new development centre, funded by the local Training Enterprise Council, sits near the centre of Bristol in a 50 per cent new build and 50 per cent refurbishment of existing buildings Readers who are also watchers of BBC1's Casualty would recognise the site as it is used to form the entrance to Holby General. But videoconferencing and Denford are far from being casualties. They are part of the future.

Manufacturing: the video advantage, Enigma Publishing Ltd, 1997, free, tel: 0181 832 3888.

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