Worcester Polytechnic keeps up with times by returning to roots

Worcester Tech students work on immediate, practical projects that industries can't accommodate within their normal operations. They get to use state-of-the-art equipment provided by industries while getting practical experience. And companies reap the benefits of this `hands on' research. ROBOT-arm FS380R lurches and twists on the uneven floor of the 100-year-old building that houses the robotics lab of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). Whining sounds fill the large room as the machine shows off its mechanical dexterity.

Nearby, the older, less-sophisticated Puma Ultimate robot performs the monotonous task of picking up small discs and sorting them into piles. Plastic discs go in one pile, metal in another; washers with holes go to a third pile, and solid ones are stacked beside them.

That this gymnastic machine can tell the difference between plastic and metal is proof of a successful high-technology marriage of intelligence and mechanics.

Robot FS380R will soon leave the lab to take up welding work on a General Motors assembly line in Framingham. Meanwhile, it is a useful teaching tool.

Worcester Tech is in the front rank of educational institutions that are building new relationships with industry, links they believe will help keep American industry abreast of foreign competition. But for WPI, it's a return to the way things used to be. In 1865, Ichabod Washburn, a local industrialist, donated a fully equipped machine shop to the newly founded Worcester County Free Institute of Industrial Science, which became Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1887.

Through the 1870s and '80s the shop saw heavy commercial use. Students turned out many different commercial products. The most successful was a metal drawing stand with an adjustable wood top, which sold for $11. The shop's catalog also listed drill presses, lathes, grinding materials, and hydraulic elevators for sale. Students spent between 30 and 40 percent of their time working in the shop. As trainees, they received no pay.

Thomas C. Mendenhall II, grandson and namesake of WPI's third president, says ``the shops became almost too successful,'' earning more than $33,000 in 1882.

Dr. Mendenhall, president emeritus of Smith College, says WPI's trustees were divided. Some thought too much emphasis was placed on the commercial operation and too little on education. Labor unions grumbled about the school's use of cheap labor.

In 1896, President Mendenhall fired the shop manager and greatly cut back the scope of lab operations. Although times have changed and students are now working with computers rather than drawing tables, Edmund T. Cranch, president of WPI, says there is still ``a dynamic academic tension'' in the debate over mixing practice and theory. ``If education is to be healthy,'' he adds, ``there will always be this tension.''

WPI dedicated the renovated Washburn Shops and Laboratories in October and reaffirmed its commitment to the union between pure engineering theory and practical, hands-on training. The Washburn Building, which was used mainly for storage just a few years ago, now contains the robotics lab, a sophisticated machine shop, a computer science lab, and a nuclear reactor. The school has several programs that link it with industry. One is the Center for the Management of Advanced Automation Technology (MAAT), which was organized because industry has ``lots of practical problems which need solving to get the country's productivity up,'' says Frank Noonan, head of the WPI's department of management science.

Many of the difficulties of introducing change into industries are not technical, but managerial problems, he says. For instance, executives at a nearby GTE plant wanted to know how effective it would be to use robots on their assembly lines. Dr. Noonan says a group of students, aided by a faculty member, went to the company to analyze the need for robots and the feasibility of installing them.

Helen G. Vassallo, the faculty adviser on the GTE project, says the students analyzed about five situations where robots might be practical. In a couple of cases, she says, the students determined it would make sense to use robots. The company has since installed one robot in a pilot program. Companies that want to update their operations but are not sure how to go about it may participate in the MAAT program, Noonan says.

Amaro Goncalves, a senior in management engineering at WPI, says he worked on a similar project for General Electric in Wilmington, Mass. It was great experience, he says. The four students in the group went to work, ``just like a consulting group,'' and analyzed how best to automate the plant. Luis Quijano, a junior from Panama, says such opportunities ``give you a lot of hands-on experience.'' He adds that ``[job] recruiters like that.''

Where the MAAT program stops after designing a strategy for modernizing a plant, the Manufacturing Engineering Applications Center (MEAC) program swings into action, actually plugging the new technology into plant operations.

David P. Asmus, MEAC director, says: ``There is already a lot of technology developed, but not lots of ways to get it implemented.'' Under his program, WPI helps companies program and install robots, camera systems for measuring products, and automated quality-control systems.

Rather than ``pure, long-range research,'' we are working on ``what's needed today,'' he says. Working on these ``real, live engineering problems is a tremendous learning experience for the students,'' Mr. Asmus says.

Yet there are other benefits from these programs, he notes. The university's robotics lab has been given or had the use of more than $1 million worth of equipment ``that we probably couldn't have bought,'' he points out.

Some robots are brought in, programmed, used in teaching, and then sent out to work in the factories. This helps keep the labs up to date, Asmus says. ``Perhaps we could buy robots, but they would be obselete in three years.''

Working with industry also helps keep professors up to date, he explains. They are able to work ``on the cutting edge of technology.''

As part of their graduation requirements, students at WPI are required to apply their engineering knowledge to social issues and projects related to their majors.

Luis Quijano is writing a manual to explain how to use computers in elementary education. Another of his projects is to design a sophisticated electronic navigation system for sailboats.

Jackie Thiebault, a junior from Southboro, says her social project will include evaluating video monitors in a local hospital. She says WPI's approach to education ``gives you a chance to be in the real world.'' Miss Thiebault says she has wanted to be an engineer since she was in eighth grade and found ``I liked doing things with my hands.'' At WPI, she explains, ``they make you learn. What you do here in seven weeks it often takes 14 weeks [to accomplish] at other schools.''

WPI is certainly not the only school seeking to mix theory with practice, university with industry. There is renewed attention nationwide both within the education and business communities. John A. Weese, director of the division of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics of the National Science Foundation in Washington, says the NSF is encouraging industry and academia to work together. The foundation will soon provide money to start five to 10 engineering research centers at universities. There may eventually be as many as 25 of these research centers, he says.

David Asmus says such support is essential. Manufacturing technology was not a big priority as recently as the mid-1970s, he says, ``but that trend has reversed.''

Noting that the US ``has been a leader in technology and innovation,'' Asmus says that if that trend is to continue, industry and educators will have to work together.

And business leaders also welcome university participation. Fred W. Garry, a vice-president of General Electric, says, ``The professional life of an engineer is less than 10 years unless he dedicates himself to continuing education.'' Universities, he adds, have an active role to play in continuing education for engineers already in the work force. Chart: Worcester Polytechnic Institute Founded in 1865, as the Worcester County Free Institute of Industrial Science, by a group of Worcester citizens led by industrialists John Boynton, a tinware manufacturer, and Ichabod Washburn, owner of a wiremaking company. Renamed Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1887. A private school, WPI is the third-oldest independent science and engineering school in the country. President: Edmund T. Cranch Enrollment: 2,500 undergraduates, 300 full-time and 400 part-time graduate students. Most graduate and undergraduate degrees are earned in computer science, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering. But degress also can be earned in some 30 other areas, including pure science disciplines.

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