Category: Michigan Tech Global Campus

News about Michigan Tech Global Campus: home of MTU’s online programs.

Robots in the Workplace

Two large orange robotic arms in a factory setting.

Robots at Work

A robotic guard dog (or robodog) stationed in an abandoned warehouse relentlessly chases intruders across a barren, post-apocalyptic landscape. Armed with tracking weapons, highly sophisticated sensors, and artificial intelligence, this robodog does not give up its hunt easily.

To avoid spoilers, that is about all I will say about “Metalhead,” the fifth, and arguably, most terrifying episode of season one of the series Black Mirror. Although many have debated the episode’s meaning, one possible interpretation is a gruesome picture of what might happen if evolved, intelligent, unchecked robots ruled the workplace. And if they took their jobs, well, maybe a little too seriously.

The good news is that there are currently no rogue robodogs guarding warehouses and going on killing sprees. However, robots have been in industry for half a century. The effects of this integration, though certainly less sinister, have troubled a few. That is, one of the most popular searches on Google is this question or variations of it: “Will robots take our jobs?”

The answer is complicated: yes, no, and they already have. And the situation might be better or worse than you think.

Making Manufacturing Easier

When many of us contemplate robots in the workplace, we might think of Amazon. This company operates over 100,000 robots on its various factory floors. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) pick, sort, and transport orders; robotic arms pack items; and autonomous ground vehicles navigate the huge warehouses.

However, on the global stage, Amazon is somewhat of a bit player. FoxConn, a Chinese electronics manufacturer, currently has over 300,000 robots in use for assembling its products. These robots help create phones, computers, tablets, and gaming consoles for companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Samsung.

But the electronics industry was not the first to integrate robots into the workplace: the automotive industry was. It took a chance on and then popularized the first industrial robot: Unimate.

Unimate was the creation of Joseph Engelberger, whom many call the father of robotics. Inspired by Isaac Asimov and his vision of robot helpers, Engelberger strove to create robots that would improve manufacturing while making workers’ lives easier.

In 1959, General Motors installed the first prototype of Unimate #001 in its Trenton, New Jersey plant. Weighing a whopping 2700 pounds, this robot’s primary job was diecasting.

The Original Unimate: an industrial robot.
The Original Unimate.

And only a decade later, GM’s rebuilt factory in Lordstown, Ohio, housed an army of spot-welding robots. These robots could build 110 cars an hour, which was double the manufacturing rate at that time.

Choosing the Right Robots for the Job (or Jobs)

An automated machine that does just one thing is not a robot. It is simply automation. A robot should have the capability of handling a range of jobs at a factory.

Joseph Engelberger

Perhaps Engelberger’s dream is best satisfied by articulated robots, equipped for several jobs. With their flexibility, dexterity, and reach, these robots are adept at assembling, packaging, palletizing, welding, and more. Palletizing robots perhaps perform one of the most annoying and dangerous of tasks in a warehouse environment: stacking stuff. These hefty robotic arms spend all day neatly piling items onto pallets.

Other common robots include SCARA (Selective Compliance Articulated Robot Arm). SCARAs perform actions between two parallel planes or assemble vertical products. Delta (spider robots) excel at high-speed actions involving light loads.

And then there are Cartesian robots, or gantry robots. They “have an overhead structure that controls the motion in the horizontal plane and a robotic arm that actuates motion vertically. They can be designed to move in x-y axes or x-y-z axes. The robotic arm is placed on the scaffolding and can be moved in the horizontal plane.” It also has an effector or machine tool attached to its arm, depending on its function. This article goes into greater detail about the four types of robots that manufacturers should know and use.

The automotive industry (as does much of manufacturing) uses robots to spot-weld, pick, paint, and palletize–boring, yet dangerous jobs. Jeff Moore, Volvo’s vice president of manufacturing in the Americas, says that welding, “with all the heat and sparks and high current and things is a natural spot to be looking at where you can more heavily automate.” However, for intricate work on the assembly line, such as attaching hoods, bumpers, and fenders, “the human touch has a lot of advantages.

Integrating Robots and Automation

But these metal workers do not just assemble cars and create heavy-duty products. Robots and automation also assist in other industries, such as in agriculture and food production.

Helping With Agriculture and Food Production

In agriculture, for instance, robots may plant, harvest, spray crops, control weeds, analyze soil, and monitor crops. And when it comes to agricultural equipment, some of the biggest players are John Deere, AGCO, CNH Industrial, and Kubota. These companies are also investing in robotics and automation; as well as tractors, drones, and data analytics to improve efficiency and crop yield and to reduce costs. Recently, for instance, Trimble and Horsch collaborated to build an autonomous sprayer.

And in food production, robots might slice, package, and label products at a much more rapid rate than humans. For instance, the global food production and processing company Cargill heavily uses robotic automation. It invented the first robotic cattle herder. Cargill and Tyson Foods, in fact, are also moving heavily into automation and cobots for meat production.

Lucy and Ethel working on an assembly line at a chocolate factory.

In one of the more famous and humorous episodes of I Love Lucy, Lucy and Ethel get employment at a candy factory. Their job: keeping up with increasing production and quickly wrapping candy as it rolls down the belt. They fail miserably as the line picks up, shoving candy in their mouths, their pockets, and even their dresses. Well, thanks to robots, inadequately trained (and slower than ideal) humans will no longer have to keep pace by eating the profits. Their tasks might be made easier by cobots.

Recently, “cobots” or modular, agile, collaborative robots have been the focus of robot manufacturers. Rather than replace workers, cobots work alongside their human employees. Armed with sensors and sophisticated feedback equipment, cobots respond to changes in the workflow and help their human partners perform tasks accurately and safely. Some experts predict that the cobot market (currently valued at $1.1 billion) will expand to $9.2 million by 2028).

Performing Tedious and Dangerous Tasks

Robots can also complete tasks that are too tedious for humans, such as inspecting pipelines or sorting items. Additionally, they can monitor and analyze data in real time, allowing workers to make better informed decisions. In the oil and gas industry, for instance, robots inspect pipelines and inspect wells.

And it is not just repetitive and boring tasks, either. That is, another argument in favor of robots in the workplace is that they can perform hazardous tasks, such as working in extreme temperatures and dangerous environments; and cleaning up harmful materials.

One of of the most recently developed robots who might be fit for these tasks is MARVEL, appropriately named because of its superhero abilities. MARVEL is an acronym for Magnetically Adhesive Robot for Versatile and Expeditious Locomotion.

The brainchild of a research team from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), this robot is equipped with magnetic foot pads that can be turned on or off.

Researchers and MARVEL at KAIST

With these specialized feet, MARVEL can rapidly climb steel walls and ceilings, at speeds of 50 cm to 70 cm a second. Its design and speed make it appropriate for several tricky tasks requiring nimbleness, such as performing inspections and maintenance on high structures (bridges, buildings, ships, and transmission towers.)

Imagine, for a second, MARVEL safely performing maintenance on the Houghton lift bridge while it is still operational. No need to block off one lane and slow down the flow of traffic. No need to be late for work!

Taking Our Jobs? Maybe.

We are approaching a time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task. I believe that society needs to confront this question before it is upon us: if machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?

Moshe Vardi

One of the most obvious downsides to incorporating robots in the workplace is that they will lead to job losses. That is, some experts estimate that as many as 20 million job losses will result as companies continue to rely on automation.

Critiquing Robots and Automation

Futurist and New York Times best-selling author Martin Ford has probably been the most vocal about the negative economic and social impacts of automation and robotics.

He has written Rule of the Robots: How Artificial Intelligence will Transform Everything (2021), Architects of Intelligence: The Truth About AI and the People Building it (2018), and Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (2015).

Ford has argued that automation and robotics will result in job losses, wage stagnation, and widening inequality. These effects, which will be felt most acutely by low-skilled and middle-skilled workers, will also weaken worker bargaining power.

Cover of Martin Ford's book "The Rise of the Robots"

Alleviating These Problems

But there are solutions. That is, Ford has advocated that governments should prepare for and then take steps to address the issues posed by robotics and automation. Governing bodies could provide better access to education and new job training, invest in infrastructure, promote job-sharing, and provide more generous unemployment benefits.

To alleviate inequities caused by increasing automation, Ford has urged governments to create tax incentives that encourage employers to hire people and train them in the use of robots; or for companies to invest in robots designed to complement rather than replace human workers (such as cobots). He has also supported a basic monthly income for citizens so that everyone has a decent standard of living. How will this monthly income be funded? By taxing companies that use robots, or taxing the robots themselves to generate this income.

MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, who wrote The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, also summarized the second machine age and evaluated in terms of its positive benefits (“bounty”) and increasing inequality (“spread”). After stating that the spread of technology is causing greater inequality, they proposed some similar policy interventions.

Defending Robots in the Workplace

Critics of Ford, McAfee, and Brynjolfsson, such as economists Lawrence Summers and Robert Gordon, and industry expert Jeff Bezos, take a contradictory perspective. They argue that robots and automation will create more jobs than they destroy. These technologies, they contend, will also lead to advanced productivity and efficiency, improved demands for goods and services, and, therefore, increased employment. Robots can also help reduce costs, which could lead to increased profits for companies and more jobs overall.

Summers takes a slightly different stand, affirming that robots could increase production and therefore benefit the economy and improve employment. However, governments should still invest in education and job training to ensure that workers have the skills needed to take advantage of the opportunities created by both automation and robotics.

Futurists at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) have sung the praises of robots and automation for years. Their experts content that robots and automation will enhance productivity and reshape global supply chains. New production systems, they claim, will bring more (not less) manufacturing work to the United States.

And then there are the numbers, which currently don’t look that fearful. According to the International Federation of Robotics, in the United States, there were only 255 robotic units per 10,000 employees. Although 47% of CEOs are investing in robots (according to a poll by Forbes, Xometry, and Zogby), robots still only have a 2% presence in industry.

Whatever the industry, it is obvious that robots can increase both efficiency and safety. They can work 24/7. They won’t tire during a 16-hour shift, get repetitive stress injuries, or have fatigue-related workplace accidents. Robots can also increase output capacity by helping American manufacturers save on utilities and worker resources, so that they can compete more effectively with offshore companies.

Preparing for an Automated and Robotic Future

Robotic arm in a lab at Michigan Tech.

This blog has just scratched the surface of robots in the workplace. That is, it didn’t discuss robotic doctors, such as the impressive Davinci Surgical System. Also, I don’t pretend to be an expert here, just an ex Sci-Fi teacher fascinated with the robotic present and future.

Those who want to prepare for a future in robotics and automation can learn more by taking several educational paths at Michigan Tech. MTU offers major and minor degrees in computer engineering, data acquisition and industrial control, electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering, and robotics engineering.

More specifically, there is mechatronics: a field of engineering that combines mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering to create systems that can interact with the physical world. Mechatronic systems consist of sensors, actuators, and control systems. These systems are fundamental to creating robots and other automated systems. Students in this program can also join the Robotics Systems Enterprise “to solve real-world engineering problems.”

Through Global Campus, Michigan Tech also offers several related online graduate certificates in artificial intelligence in healthcare, manufacturing engineering, the safety and security of autonomous cyber-physical systems, and security and privacy in healthcare. And if you’re interesting in earning an online master’s degree, please check out our MS in Electrical and Computer Engineering or our online Mechanical Engineering programs, both MS and PhD.

Electric Vehicles: Moving Beyond Tesla

Parking lot spot with an icon for electric vehicles.

Increasing Demand for Electric Vehicles

In a previous blog, I discussed some of the challenges and constraints regarding the future of electric vehicles. But despite certain challenges, such as a need for more charging stations, the demands for electric and hybrid vehicle sales are, respectively, either climbing or staying steady.

In fact, in the third quarter of 2022, US sales of electric vehicles and hybrid-plug-in electric vehicles hit an all-time high. According to a Kelley Blue Book report, the total number of electric vehicles and fuel-cell electric vehicles (fcevs) sold was 578,402. That number marks a 69% increase from 2021 (339, 671). Also, the total number of hybrid and plug-in vehicles sold was 686,271, which is actually strong but slightly down from 2021 numbers (728, 507). Based on these figures, Kelley Blue Book estimates that there will be over 1,000,000 EVs sold in 2023.

What these numbers mean is that although the demand for hybrids is still strong, the popularity of electric vehicles is accelerating, despite the fact that these latter vehicles aren’t cheap. That is, the average cost of an electric vehicle remains over $65k.

Tesla continues to be the leader with its models 3, S, X, & Y all having dramatically increased sales, despite their hefty price tags.

Producing Electric Vehicles for Different Users

“While EV prices currently align more closely with luxury versus mainstream, the market continues to grow and evolve with more choices hitting the scene all the time. It’s no longer just ‘which Tesla is available,’ but rather an industry-wide boom with more EVs on the horizon from Ford, GM, Hyundai, and other manufacturers.”

Brian Moody, Kelley Bluebook

In other words, it is not just Tesla winning at the electric vehicle game. Based on year-to-date sales numbers, some of the other solid contenders for improved sales were the following:

  • Mini Cooper: 2,615 (2022) vs. 1,226 (2021) = +113%
  • Ford Mustang Mach-E: 28,089 (2022) vs. 18,855 (2021) = +49%
  • Audi e-tron: 10,828 (2022) vs. 7.7939 (2021) = +38.9%
  • Mini Cooper: 1,099 (2022) vs. 488 (2021) = +125%

On the hybrid and plug-in hybrid front, overall sales remained relatively steady. But some companies experienced huge gains: Acura, BMW, Honda, Toyota, and Volvo. The big winner in the hybrid market, however, was moderately priced Lincoln Corsair, which had 7X as many sales as those of the previous year.

Meeting the EV Challenge with Trucks

Beyond SUVs like the Lincoln Corsair, the next trend on the horizon is electric trucks. The F-150, currently the best selling vehicle in the US, now has an electric version. The F-150’s more climate-conscious cousin, the Lightning, was rolled out in May 2022 after tens of thousands of Americans had already reserved one. (The F-150 also comes in a hybrid model.)

What’s even cooler: The F-150 Lightning can act as its own power source. With its vehicle-to-grid (V2G) capabilities, it has the ability to charge another electric vehicle. And its massive battery can also power your home, yes your home, during an outage. Ford claims, in fact, that a fully charged Lightning can keep a household going for three days.

Chevrolet followed quickly with its Silverado, built on the same electric platform as the Hummer EV. With the EV Silverado, you can also purchase an ultium charging accessory to power your home in emergencies. Both of these innovative products support GM’s goals of creating a more resilient grid. The company is also investing 750M in charging infrastructure, so that everyone can take advantage of what electric vehicles have to offer.

With site hosts and our dealers, we are installing up to 40,000 chargers in local dealers’ communities through GM’s Dealer Community Charging Program—focusing on underserved rural and urban areas. Participating dealers will get level 2 chargers to install in their communities.

GM Newsroom

Pursuing Electric Vehicle Education at Tech

I’ll stop geeking out here about the plethora of new electric vehicles on the horizon. And I’ve obviously just scratched the surface of the automotive future. (In fact, as I was editing this post, one of my former students excitedly chimed in about the 2024 GM E-ray, a snazzy, sleek, powerful electric Corvette!)

The main point is that several automotive companies, beyond Tesla, are thinking greener and rolling out electric and hybrid models to meet the different needs, lifestyles, and, especially, price points of consumers. In other words, what many thought was a trend–vehicle electrification–is now both a business strategy and an environmental mission for several automotive companies. And it is a strategy and a mission that Michigan Tech can help prepare you for.

Michigan Tech offers several online graduate certificates and programs so that you keep up with the mobility revolution.


Mass Timber, Part II: Growing Michigan’s CLT Potential

A full-scale hardwood CLT panel undergoing testing.

A full-scale hardwood cross-laminated timber (CLT) panel testing done on sugar maple

Earlier last month, having become fascinated (well, maybe a bit obsessed) with the aesthetics and sustainability of engineered wood structures, I wrote a blog on mass timber construction. Because I work for Global Campus, I focused on the Online Timber Building Design Certificate offered by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. 

Afterwards, a kind and enthusiastic faculty member, Dr. Mark Rudnicki, reached out to me. Although he had enjoyed the blog, he gently reminded me that I had missed “half the story: where mass timber comes from.”

Rudnicki, based in The College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, has many impressive forestry-related roles. He is Professor of Practice (Forest Materials), Director (Ford Center and College Forests), HotForest Enterprise Advisor, and lastly, Coordinator of Industrial Research, Innovation, and Commercialization. Rudnicki is also currently leading the Michigan Forest Biomaterials Initiative. So when he starting talking about mass timber, I immediately listened.

A few email exchanges later, I am following up on that blog by highlighting MTU’s innovative work on the development of mass timber fabrication. And the possibilities of developing a full-scale CLT facility in Michigan.

The Biomaterials initiative is an ambitious endeavor to improve the quality of life for the citizens of Michigan by moving purposefully toward a future that takes responsible yet full advantage of Michigan’s renewable resources. Biomaterials hold tremendous promise for innovative developments, uses and applications across the renewable material and energy sectors as well as re-examining traditional biomaterial sectors such as wood production and adding value to wood products.

Faculty Profile of Dr. Mark Rudnicki

Combining Mass Timber Research Expertise

student works in the hardwood biomaterials CLT lab
At work in the Hardwood Biomaterials CLT Lab

Just as with other innovations, Michigan Tech has long lead the charge on mass timber fabrication. That is, the College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science has conducted wood product research since 1946.

And this research is transdisciplinary, too. Currently, mass timber expertise at MTU comprises a diverse team of 7 faculty members and 6 research staff. This team consists of members from the College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, the Dept. of Civil Engineering, and the College of Computing.

Innovating CLT Products

And these experts are doing something new. Mass timber typically comes from softwood. However, for several years now, this team has been collaborating to develop new cross-laminated timber from hardwoods. Why focus on hardwoods? Because Michigan’s forests consist of approximately 70% hardwoods, many of which are of low value. And, in case you haven’t noticed, in the Upper Peninsula itself, trees vastly outnumber people. That is, of the UP’s 10.5 million acres, 84%, or 8.8 million acres, is forested land. That’s a lot of potential CLT.

The team’s first CLT panel was made from sugar maple. But they also conducted bonding performance testing on other types of Michigan hardwood. These were sugar maple, red oak, yellow birch, white ash, red maple, quaking aspen, basswood. In addition, they tested how these hardwoods bonded to two common Michigan softwood species: red pine and white pine. Their objective was investigating the potential of CLT panels comprised of both hardwood and softwood.

Further testing will be conducted through a research-scale CLT press. This press was purchased with funding from private industry and the state of Michigan. Rudnicki has big goals, too. “We are assembling a CLT fabrication lab, which will be the most capable lab outside of the West Coast.” Furthermore, his team has also raised funds for a finger jointer that can join shorter low-value boards into long boards for large CLT panels.

The CLT press in the fabricationlab.
A research-scale CLT Press in the fabrication lab.

The manufacturing capacity of CLT in the US is currently 1/10th of the demand expected within 10 years . . . .CLT is, therefore, a prime opportunity for increasing the economic resilience of our rural communities.

Dr. Mark Rudnicki

Building a Market for CLT Products While Advancing Michigan’s Economy

A full-scale CLT fabrication research facility would definitely benefit Michigan. Because this facility will focus on hardwood species in Michigan, it will pave the way for both the commercialization of hardwood and the growth of local manufacturing. Thus, it would not only take advantage of abundant local resources, but also support rural jobs and communities.

A new market for hardwood is especially welcome in northern Michigan, where loggers make most of their profit on higher-grade logs, such as veneer. Because of the absence of a good market for lower-grade logs, it is often difficult to make a harvest viable and sustainable management goals achievable.

Making a sustainable CLT product from the state’s plethora of lower-value hardwoods, then, would be an environmental and economic win.

The MTU facility also aims to act as an incubator for startups interested in entering the hardwood CLT market. Building market demand for this engineered wood is a crucial first step. To do so, the team expects to produce demonstration structures that highlight the capabilities of hardwood. In other words, illustrating the strength and the beauty of hardwood structures to consumers will help to open up a market for CLT.

The potential of the CLT facility caught the attention of Senator Debbie Stabenow, who visited Michigan Tech in 2021 in support of the program.

Offering Versatile Forestry Degrees

The College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science offers several diverse degrees on the understanding and management of forests. For instance, there are MS Degrees in Forestry and Forest Ecology and Management, a PhD in Forest Science, and a Master of Forestry (professional degree).

The College also has an undergraduate degree programs in sustainable bioproducts, with a concentration in sustainable structures. This degree, which is a combination of science, business, and engineering, could be the first step in a mass timber career.

Learn more about programs offered by the College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science.

Public Policy Experts and Students Attend Conference

Us government building, where public policy decisions are made.

Presenting at an Innovative Public Policy Conference

Recently, Dr. Adam Wellstead, director of the Online Public Policy Certificate, two colleagues, and several students attended a valuable policy conference. They participated in the Conference on Policy Process Research (COPPR) 2023: Advancing Policy Process, Theories, and Methods, held in Denver, Colorado.

Representing the Department of Social Sciences were Dr. Adam Wellstead and Dr. Angie Carter. As well, eight students attended virtually or in-person: Esther Acheampong,  Madelina Dilisi, Anne Greub, Kathy Huerta Sanchez, Sidney Mechling, Jason Noe, Caitlyn Sutherlin, and Cassy Tefft de Munoz.

At the conference, Dr. Wellstead delivered research that was a collaboration of one of his inter-university research teams. He, along with Dr. Sojeong Kim (University of California-Davis); and Dr Tanya Heikkila (University of Colorado-Denver), presented their paper, “Policy Learning in Data-Based Policy Innovation Labs.” 

Policy innovation labs are one of Dr. Wellstead’s many research interests. That is, previously, he developed a policy lab at Queen’s University. While there, he and students formed a Policy Innovation Lab that consulted stakeholders and developed solutions for the problem of Queen’s homecoming.

Gaining Public Policy Knowledge and Professional Skills

According to Dr. Wellstead, students enjoyed the experience of the conference and its benefits. For instance, they gained insight into the policy process and its leading researchers. They also had the opportunity to explore new public policy topics as well as gain inspiration for future research projects. Furthermore, they advanced their professionalism skills, which they can apply in both future conferences and their careers.

The conference was an incredible learning experience for me. I was exposed to the leading policy scholars within the field with whom I could interact in a student-friendly environment. It was fascinating to see the different research and practical applications for the various theories and frameworks I’ve learned about in my policy courses at Michigan Tech. There are so many fields that apply and derive value from these theories, from healthcare, politics, and environmental studies.

Madelina Dilisi (Acc MS)

Discussing Public Policy With Dr. Wellstead and Conference Attendees

Are you interested in learning more about cutting-edge public policy? Policy Innovation Labs? Or about the versatile skills offered by Michigan Tech’s Online Public Policy Certificate?

If you are curious about the above topics and more, Dr. Wellstead will be hosting an informal discussion with some of the conference participants in the AOB common area. This discussion will take place this Wednesday (January 25th) at 3:30 pm. All are welcome.   

David Lawrence: One Man, Several Missions

Vice President David Lawrence in his Grand Rapids office

“I am deeply committed to the success of our students. That is, as Vice President for Global Campus and Continuing Education, I want to ensure that students have the programs and support systems they need to embark on and succeed in their unique educational journeys. . . . I am thrilled to continue collaborating with faculty members and researchers to develop new ideas and initiatives. Overall, it is an honor to enhance the university’s reputation and prestige while achieving our fundamental goals for students, faculty and staff, and the institution as a whole.”

David Lawrence, Vice President for Global Campus and Continuing Education

Catching Up With the Vice President for Global Campus

40: That is the number of times that David Lawrence, Vice President for Global Campus and Continuing Education, has traveled since assuming this role in August 2021. Whether it’s by car or by plane, or both, David Lawrence will make the trip to advance the goals of both Michigan Tech and its Global Campus. He is always on the road to seek opportunities, build connections, and initiate partnerships. And he rarely, if ever, skips a beat. As his team can attest, he regularly takes meetings in his car or tucked away in some cubicle in an airport.

Although based in Grand Rapids, remotely-working Lawrence hasn’t had much time to sit still. He has traveled to Detroit, Auburn Hills, Lansing, Traverse City, and Kalamazoo. Furthermore, he has visited the Michigan Tech campus at least twenty times.

Not surprisingly, his work ethic and traveling schedule come with some remarkably early hours. He’s usually up before the birds, in fact. You can find him in his seat by 4:30 am, planning his day, setting up appointments, and getting work done.

What’s more: he maintains this schedule while being a proud father of five children and a devoted husband of thirty years. Impressive indeed.

Putting His Passion for Online Learning to Work

He has always had this drive, too, especially when it comes to online learning. That is, he has long been dedicated to providing students with opportunities to accomplish their educational and professional goals. Early on, he understood how the flexibility of online education could allow students to learn while balancing their families and lives. So it is natural that he is leading the charge on making education attainable, affordable, and accessible for non-traditional students.

Passionate, ambitious, forward-thinking, and productive: these adjectives describe David Lawrence to a tee.

Luckily, I was able to catch up with Lawrence after the beginning of the Spring 2023 semester: one of those rare quieter weeks. The goals: asking him about his past year at the helm of Global Campus and inquiring about his upcoming plans for 2023.

Recalling a Very Busy Year for Global Campus

It’s been a very busy year for you. Congratulations! Could you summarize some of the Global Campus accomplishments and initiatives?

Well, first, I’ll talk about enrollment. Through our various Global Campus initiatives, we’ve increased both online graduate student applications and enrollment. That is, applications are up by 7% for Fall 22 and by over 58% for Spring 23. Also, enrollment grew by 13% for Fall 22 and by 28% for Spring 23. In fact, the Global Campus is approaching 20% of the Graduate School’s enrollment. Professional Development revenue also grew to over $350,000.

Over the past year, I have worked diligently to broaden and diversify our student body. For instance, I’ve led the initiative for our corporate partnership programs, which include our Corporate Education Fellowship Program. The latter allows employees to return to school using Michigan Tech fellowships. It also provides opportunities for working adults to enroll in our programs.

In other words, it’s been a good year, one involving several initiatives at the university. Considerable time has been spent with faculty and chairs to ensure that Michigan Tech is in the best position to be the leading institution in online programs. I’ve collaborated with the Graduate School and the Office of Financial Aid to allow students to apply for and receive financial aid for graduate certificate programs.

Advancing the Interests of Michigan Tech and Global Campus

These are impressive initiatives. Some of these seem directly related to Global Campus whereas others do not. Can you further explain your reasoning for pursuing these projects?

Well, I’ll start with the ones that are related. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) proposals benefit the Global Campus. They especially help the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering as well as APS Labs. Our MEDC partnership aligns directly with the Global Campus goals for graduate certificates and master’s programs.

And then there are the funding opportunities I’ve participated in. That is, I was involved in two statewide initiatives led by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). They were for the automotive industry and the upcoming semiconductor onshoring plan. Both of these initiatives will bring funding and new students to the university. For instance, for the automotive one, we’ve already been chosen for a $165,000 grant for education.

Moving Beyond Siloed Initiatives

At the same time, I understand the importance of non-siloed work that benefits the entire organization. For example, the Global Campus partnered internally with APS Mobile Labs and externally with Stellantis (formerly Chrysler) in the Propulsion Systems Readiness Program (PReP). Though unrelated to Global Campus, this program does support our undergraduate students. The PReP allows 4th and 5th-year Michigan Tech students to begin a specialized education program, receive scholarships and internships, and begin a career pathway at Stellantis. Additionally, the Henry Ford Corporate Partnership also reaches out to undergraduate students. It provides scholarships and allow them to attend MTU.

I do believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. What we pursue at Global Campus ends up going beyond it: supporting many other departments and forwarding the progress of the university’s goals. That is, our Global Campus initiatives leverage new and existing relationships and ensure that Michigan Tech maintains its national prominence.

David Lawrence, Vice President for Global Campus and Continuing Education

Remembering Rewarding Experiences

Describe some of your favorite moments and experiences of 2022.

One of the best moments of the year was signing the Corporate Education Fellowship Agreement at Nexteer Automotive. With partnerships like these, we are able to create pathways for employees to pursue Michigan Tech’s graduate programs. We had an impressive number of attendees at our presentations, too. And, of course, spending time on Nexteer’s test track and touring their facility were fun. Nexteer has enrolled five new employees for our spring semester and we have over fifteen applications in for future semesters.

Also, working with the Advanced Power Research Labs to advance the customized training initiative for companies such as Stellantis and Borg Warner has been rewarding. It is an honor and a joy to see employees beginning their education through professional development at Michigan Tech. In fact, over 150 employees from Stellantis and BorgWarner have been through the Mobile Lab training program during 2022.

It was an honor to meet the army chief of staff while I was with the Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) in Houghton. We discussed how Michigan Tech’s education and training could positively impact our National Defense system. I also enjoyed touring Advanced Power System (APS) Labs and visiting the Keweenaw Research Center. Meeting with President Koubek about how Global Campus contributes to Michigan Tech’s mission and vision was, and always is, gratifying.

Leaders from Global Campus and Nexteer at the Corporate Education Fellowship Agreement Ceremony.
At the signing ceremony for the Nexteer Corporate Education Fellowship, leaders from Michigan Tech and Nexteer stand in the background while Robin Milavec (President, CTO, CSO, & Executive Board Director of Nexteer) and President Richard Koubek shake hands. Fifth from the right is Vice President David Lawrence, who is standing in front of Jacque Smith, Director of Graduate School Operations and Enrollment Services. Amanda Irwin, Enrollment Manager, stands on the far right.

Collaborating With the Michigan Tech Community

What Michigan Tech community members have you worked with to advance Global Campus initiatives?

There are almost too many people to mention. I mean, so many people have contributed their hours and their expertise to our initiatives. Still, I will name a few: Dave Reed, Vice President for Research; Andrew Storer, Interim Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs; and Will Cantrell, Associate Provost and Dean of the Graduate School. They have all helped advance our objectives.

And several deans have also contributed to Global Campus initiatives. Dean Callahan, Dean Hemmer, Dean Johnson, and Dean Livesay have all been collaborators. Department chairs, such as Jason Blough, Jin Choi, Dan Fuhrmann, John Irwin, Audra Morse, and Jiguang Sun have also supported in and/or led our projects. Then there are the faculty, such as Glen Archer and Guy Hembroff; and the graduate program chairs, which include Paul Bergstrom and Wayne Weaver. In addition, Jay Meldrum (Keweenaw Research Center); and Jeff Naber, Jeremy Worm, and his fine staff at APS Mobile Labs have also been indispensable.

Working Remotely With a Small Team

You’re a remote (but extremely well-traveled vice president) who also has a remote team. Can you say a little about your team and how do they advance the goals and initiatives of Global Campus?

Our small, but mighty and dedicated team comprises Jacque Smith, Director of Graduate School Operations and Enrollment Services; Amanda Irwin, Enrollment Manager; and Shelly Galliah, Marketing and Content Manager.

While devoted to the Graduate School, Jacque Smith has significantly contributed to Global Campus. He has provided advice, direction, and support from its inception to its current state. His experience is indispensable. He knows everyone and is respected, if not loved, by many in the Michigan Tech community.

Amanda Irwin, who began in February of 2022, contributes extensive enrollment experience from both a private university and a community college. Residing in Midland, Michigan, Amanda assists students from the initial inquiry through to the program and registration processes. Her strengths are working with all types of students, making them feel at ease, comprehending their goals, and guiding them toward success.

Shelly Galliah, who began in May 2022, resides in Hancock but works from home. She has held various positions at Tech for the past decade. Holding a Ph.D. from the Humanities Department, Shelly has experience designing and leading online courses, writing professional and technical communication, evaluating countless documents, and teaching MTU students. She writes, researches, and copy edits all kinds of communications for Global Campus.

Leading With Trust and Vision

In your opinion, what is essential for a remote team working together successfully?

Trust is definitely fundamental to remote work. Possessing high-quality individuals who work with dedication and initiative allows the university to have the best employees possible and create the optimal working environment.

The dynamics of working together are complex but rewarding. They include trusting each other, communicating clearly, understanding goals, prioritizing tasks, and focusing on short- and long-term strategies and initiatives. Working remotely can be challenging, but it also creates skills that will be definitely be in high demand in the future, such as conducting productive brainstorming sessions, holding productive virtual meetings, and fostering teamwork.

Turning Challenges Into Opportunities

What are some of the more challenging aspects of your job?

Well, I would say that one of the most challenging aspects of my position is spreading awareness about the benefits of online education and about Global Campus itself. Although online education is not new, it is newer in some areas of Michigan Tech.

Location is so important to our identity as a university. Therefore, it is often difficult for prospective students to see Tech as offering that same rigorous, high-quality education online. Another associated challenge is determining which programs can be delivered online.

I noticed you didn’t mention the traveling. Surely, that has to be tough. What advice can you give to those who travel regularly?

Traveling is just a part of my job; it’s not really a challenge if you’re prepared for it. Still, my travel advice is to plan, plan, plan. The rigorous schedule, demands, and expectations of the meetings, as well as the outcomes that must result from the meetings, can sometimes make travel difficult. My advice for frequent travelers is quite simple: stay focused, have a plan, and get follow-up afterward. Ensure that the meetings you attend are necessary and cannot be accomplished in a remote venue.

Also, make sure that your family and close associates know and support your schedule. Being prepared to delegate while traveling will allow you to be more productive. I would recommend sticking to a schedule and routine that allows you to take care of your health and that provides mental breaks

Looking Forward to 2023

Considering your past successes and your future goals, what parts of your job or initiatives are you most passionate about? And why?

I remain deeply committed to the success of our students. That is, as Vice President for Global Campus and Continuing Education, I want to ensure that students have the programs and support systems they need to embark on and succeed in their unique educational journeys. I am very passionate about establishing internal partnerships with university departments and external ones with organizations, associations, and nonprofits. Lastly, I am thrilled to continue collaborating with faculty members and researchers to develop new ideas and initiatives. Overall, it is an honor to enhance the university’s reputation and prestige while achieving our fundamental goals for students, faculty and staff, and the institution as a whole.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

It is gratifying to hear the stories of our alumni, visit corporations with Tech connections and tour their facilities, and observe MTU’s impact on the state, the nation, and beyond. These experiences not only make me proud of the university but also inspire me to advocate for the university and spread the good news about our achievements.

Whether it is through increasing enrollment, developing initiatives, or building partnerships, I look forward to promoting and growing Global Campus in Michigan, the United States, and, of course, the world.

The Future of Electric Vehicles and Vehicle Electrification

Close up of an electric vehicle being charged.

The Future is Definitely Electric

Despite common perceptions, electric vehicles are not a new phenomenon. In fact, the first battery-powered electric vehicle was built in 1834—more than 50 years before the first gas-powered internal combustion vehicle. In fact, according to an IEEE Proceedings article by Chan (2013), more than one-third of automobiles in the United States were electric by 1912.

What’s behind this rapid growth? What benefits of electric vehicles attract consumers? What is the future of electric vehicles beyond our highways? And how can we continue to build electrical cars responsibly? Read on for more.

Accelerating into the Future with Electric Vehicles

Despite sputtering in the 1990s and early 2000s, advances in electric vehicles have evolved rapidly in recent years. After the wildly popular launch of electric vehicles from Tesla, automakers scrambled to expand their foothold in the market. And they’re getting plenty of help.

Government Cooperation

National governments worldwide are fast-forwarding the future of electric vehicles by setting specific benchmarks. For instance, in the U.S., the Biden administration’s wants half of all vehicles sold in 2030 to be electric. Furthermore, the Inflation Reduction Act  encourages companies to install EV chargers at their properties. Those that do so can receive a 30% tax credit.

Also, the European Union’s goal by 2030 is to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent. They plan to do so through a combination of policies that are collectively called the “Fit for 55” program. Even local governments are undertaking strong sustainability initiatives. Paris is in the midst of an ambitious “Bike Plan” initiative to create 112 miles of new permanent bicycle lanes. Furthermore, the city aims to triple the number of bike parking spots to 180,000 by 2026.

Consumer Behavior

These government-sponsored measures are a response to shifting attitudes by consumers about alternative modes of transportation—especially among those who live in cities. One recent survey indicated that inner-city trips with shared bicycles and e-scooters have risen 60 percent year over year. This number is no surprise when you consider that, in 2020, electric bikes outsold electric cars in the U.S. by more than 2 to 1. Also, public consumers aren’t the only ones shifting to electric: The U.S. Army is planning to transition its non-tactical fleet of 177,000 to electric vehicles by 2035.

Improvements in Electric Vehicle Technology

And investors are taking notice of these electric trends. That is, nearly $330 billion in investments have been granted to more than 2,000 mobility companies over the last decade. These companies are focused on automation, connectivity, electrification, and smart mobility (ACES). Thanks to these investments, automakers may research and invent new and innovative ways to increase the quality and durability of electric vehicles. One ultimate goal: making electric vehicles less expensive than gas-powered cars.

By 2035, the largest automobile markets will go electric.

McKinsey Center for Future Mobility

Considering Electric Vehicles Beyond Automobiles

When it comes to the future of electric vehicles, the possibilities go beyond highways and byways. From keeping electric vehicles on the road to changing the perception of electric vehicles in other modes of transportation, there are many innovations to get excited about and challenges to conquer.

Charging Infrastructure

There has been substantial growth in electric car sales. However, nearly half of U.S. consumers say battery or charging issues are their top concern when considering an electric vehicle. As a result, there have been increasing calls for improving charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. This infrastructure entails the network of charging stations, cables, and other equipment needed to power up these vehicles. A summary of this infrastructure is below.

  • Public charging stations
  • Home-based charging points
  • Workplace chargers
  • Necessary installation services
  • Software
  • Energy management systems

To help make charging easier for Americans, the US government has recently stepped in. For instance, the recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides $7.5 billion toward strengthening charging infrastructure nationwide. A main objective is installing half a million public chargers by 2030.

Sustainable Mobility in Cities

As previously mentioned, Paris wants to become a “100 percent cyclable city.” However, Paris’s vision is not the only option for cities seeking to increase both mobility and sustainability. One possible potent solution from the McKinsey Center for Future Mobility is called “Seamless Mobility.” This solution is a flexible, highly responsive network of transportation options. These include a shared fleet of public electric vehicles, electrified mass transit, and urban planning meant to reduce emissions. Therefore, an average-sized city could reap up to $2.5 billion per year by 2030 by implementing Seamless Mobility practices.

Look! Up in the Sky!

The future of electric vehicles, however, isn’t limited to the road. That is, interest continues to grow in electric air travel through eVTOLs (pronounced “ee-vee-tols”)—electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. Think of them as safe, quiet, affordable, and environmentally friendly helicopters. Using eVTOLs as “flying taxis” for short flights or for trips normally taken by cars could substantially reduce emissions. Airbus Innovations, for example, is experimenting with electric and hybrid-electric propulsion systems.

Some major airlines are thinking even bigger when it comes to electric aircraft. For instance, United Airlines Ventures, Air Canada, and Mesa Airlines have made significant financial pledges. After joining the investment group for Swedish-based electric aviation startup Heart Aerospace, these companies ordered several 30-passenger electric planes.

Close up of a hybrid-electric plane by the company Airbus. Planes are also electric vehicles.
Airbus Innovations is an initiative launched by Airbus to drive the development of new technologies and capabilities for the aerospace industry, such as electric and hybrid-electric propulsion systems, autonomous flight systems, and more.

Or Maybe Down to the Sea.

Cars and planes are not the only vehicles going electric. That is, electric boats are becoming more popular due to their low emissions, quiet operation, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness over traditional gas-powered boats. Some examples of electric boats include electric sailboats, electric ferries, electric speedboats, and electric fishing boats. More and more boat manufacturers are beginning to offer electric models, and electric boats are becoming more widely available.

Several boat manufacturers are offering electric models, including Sea Ray, Yamaha, Beneteau, Bayliner, Chris Craft, Viking, and Four Winns.

Building Electric Vehicles Responsibly

Although the benefits of electric vehicles can be substantial, it’s important to ensure those benefits aren’t canceled out by the environmental and human impact of manufacturing electric vehicles and infrastructure.

Sourcing and Mining Raw Materials

Virtually all batteries used by electric vehicles require lithium. And its price has skyrocketed—by about 550 percent in one year—as the demand for electric vehicles has grown. Mining more lithium, as well as other necessary elements such as cobalt, means more manpower. However, this mining, which often occurs in countries such as China, Guinea, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, can be a dirty business. Miners are often subject to unsafe working conditions and potentially toxic side effects of dust and fumes. As with other human and workers’ rights campaigns in recent years, raising awareness of the plight of these workers can pressure on manufacturers and governments to regulate and improve working conditions.

Ensuring Equitable Electricity

The U.S. government’s investment in charging infrastructure is substantial. Nonetheless, this investment will only be successful if those chargers are equitably distributed among its citizens. Currently, most chargers tend to be installed in higher-income areas. For example, California has 112 chargers per 100,000 people in high-income urban districts. Contrast this number with only 24 chargers per 100,000 households in urban districts with low to moderate incomes.

States that have taken specific action to improve their electric vehicle infrastructure include the following:

  • Arizona
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Washington

Furthermore, several other states, including Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia are working to promote electric vehicle adoption.

A charger for electric vehicles.
Charging stations in remote, rural areas will ensure electricity equity and encourage more Americans to buy electric vehicles.

7 in 10 survey respondents who don’t own electric vehicles said the areas near their homes lack a significant number of chargers.

McKinsey Report

Promoting Electric Vehicles

Nonetheless, roadblocks to even greater adoption of electric vehicles can be overcome. And manufacturers and governments can be catalysts for meaningful change. For example, the European Union recently introduced legislation that would require battery manufactures to identify and respond to human rights or environmental issues in their raw-material supply chain. To help create greater equity in charging infrastructure, “cities and states should “think creatively about providing chargers that work well in public settings such as curbsides, parking lots, and rest stops” (McKinsey Group).

How Will YOU Influence the Electric Future?

You can play a role in creating electric vehicles and in helping others understand the benefits of vehicle electrification. One way to start is by furthering your education through an online graduate certificate or master’s program at Michigan Tech, which has a long and respected history of collaborating with the automotive industry.

Our university also offers several online graduate certificates and programs that meet the cutting edge needs of this industry. Some of these are the following:

Investigate these and other graduate programs at our Global Campus. Explore how Michigan Tech can help prepare you for the challenging, but exciting future of electric vehicles.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article is a joint effort of the brilliant Sparky T. Mortimer and Shelly Galliah. Whereas Mortimer provided the initial research and solid content, Galliah provided guidance for more material and then copyedited and formatted the content for this blog. All images, which are copyright-free, are from Creative Commons.

Mass Timber Buildings: The Next Structural Engineering Challenge

Interior of an open-office setting in a mass timber building.
Interior of the T3 building in Minneapolis: https://structurecraft.com/projects/t3-minneapolis

Structural engineers play a major role in the visual quality of our built environment, yet they seldom get public recognition for it. . . . Engineers create framing systems that give such buildings their shape and permit the manipulation of spaces and functions. Architects sometimes do nothing more creative than gussy up the exterior with a particular kind of curtain wall.

Paul Gapp, architect, 1980

These words above were spoken by Paul Gapp, an architect himself, in fact. He was critiquing how several articles on skyscrapers, from the early 20th century onwards, often celebrated the ingenuity of architects. In doing so, their authors forgot about those structural engineers behind the scenes, those whose designs made those monumental structures both possible and safe. In other words, he wanted to remind readers that skyscrapers began FIRST as structural engineering challenges and then, finally, achievements.

A little closer to the ground than skyscrapers is another challenge faced by structural engineers: designing, planning, and building for sustainability.

Facing the Next Challenge: Sustainable Construction

To put it simply, sustainable construction involves using materials, resources, and construction methods that minimize the negative environmental impact of a building throughout its entire life cycle. This practice includes using renewable materials, energy-efficient design, and greener construction methods. It also involves the recycling or reuse of materials at the end of the building’s life.

But sustainable construction is no trendy, flash-in-the-pan idea. According to Deloitte and Touche’s report on the 2023 Engineering and Construction outlook, customers/clients are increasingly becoming more sustainability conscious. Therefore, they are demanding that developers lower their carbon footprints in new construction projects. The 2021 World Green Building Trends report had similar findings. In the survey, 1/3 of the US companies said that they were focused on green building whereas 46% admitted that they would soon make it a priority.

In short, the Deloitte and Touche report summarized these objectives of the construction industry:

  • Encouraging the sustainable use of resources and new materials
  • Promoting sustainable design, development, and construction practices
  • Decreasing energy consumption
  • Reducing waste generation and encouraging responsible disposal of waste
  • Sourcing low-carbon energy

Moving From Concrete and Steel to More Modest Engineered Wood

Why does the construction industry need to step up to the plate when it comes to implementing sustainability practices?

Because nearly 50% of all carbon emissions come from our built environment. And, often, in densely populated areas, these buildings are steel and concrete. These materials, because of their high carbon density, account for 13% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. So transitioning to other more sustainable building materials and methods makes environmental sense.

As awareness of the benefits of sustainable construction grows, more architects and engineers are searching for environmentally-friendly alternatives to traditional construction materials. And one of the alternatives to concrete and steel is mass timber.

Mass timber, otherwise known as engineered wood, is made by creating large sections of wood, of various sizes and functions, from smaller timber panels. These timber panels are glued, nailed, or dowelled together, creating large durable slabs. These slabs can then bear significant weights and loads.

But building with mass timber is hardly new. That is, this type of construction goes back as far as the 19th century with the use of Gluman. Glulam, short for glue-laminated timber, is a structurally engineered wood product. It consists of pieces of wood bonded together in a layer-cake style. You can find highly customizable Glulam in the beams and columns of some commercial and residential buildings.

Choosing the Best Type of Mass Timber Product

Structural engineers, architects, and designers must collaborate to analyze and choose the right engineered wood material for the job. Here are the major choices:

  • Laminated veneer lumber (LVL), similar to Glulam, consists of vertical layers glued together with composites. LVL, generally made from softwoods, is more aesthetically pleasing but also less durable. You can find it in beams, trusses, and rafters.
  • Nail-laminated timber (NLT) consists of individual laminations mechanically fastened with nails or screws. The strength of this product lies in the numerous screws and nails holding the laminations together. You might recognize NLT in the flooring, decking, roofing, and walls of modern buildings. NLT’s exposed aesthetic appeal also makes it suitable for open-concept office and mixed-use buildings.
  • Dowel-laminated timber (DLT), is similar to NLT, except wooden dowels hold the laminations together. This all-wood mass timber product (no nails or metal fasteners) can be be easily constructed and modified on site. This source contains a much richer description of DLT.
  • Cross-laminated timber (CLT) is one the strongest of all mass-timber products. It has been popular in Austria and Germany for over three decades. CLT consists of panels of solid lumber boards (usually spruce, pine, or fir) stacked and glued together at alternating right angles (90°). Machines then cut these to the desired shape and size. You can find strong CLT in tall mass timber buildings.
  • Structural composite timber (SCL) consists of wood strands, veneers, or flakes bonded together with adhesives. While offering great strength and stability, SCL requires specialized installation. This mass timber product appears in rafters, beams, joists, studs, and columns.

Making a Difference, One Wood Module at a Time

Along with their durability, buildings created from mass timber materials are more sustainable and climate-friendly in several ways. They have the following advantages:

  • Reduced climate impact: According to the Journal of Building Engineering, mass-timber construction may reduce the global warming impact of buildings up to 26.5%
  • Less waste due to prefabrication: If building plans are very specific, factories can produce only those slabs required for projects.
  • Reduced transportation costs: Builders can also make some mass timber products on site from available materials, reducing shipping costs.
  • Increased efficiency: Because of the reduced waste, contractors and engineers can erect mass timber buildings up to 25% faster than similar concrete buildings.

In fact, mass timber is often worked into biophilic design. This type of architecture and urban design incorporates elements of nature, such as atriums, green roofs, natural light, into the built environment. The main goal of biophilic design is creating a more sustainable, healthier, and enjoyable living space. Mass timber structures, then, naturally fit this design approach.

By some estimates, the near-term use of CLT and other emerging wood technologies in buildings 7-15 stories could have the same emissions control effect as taking more than 2 million cars off the road for one year.

Ensuring the Safety of Mass Timber Buildings

Just as they did with those skyscrapers, structural engineers must ensure that these mass timber buildings are safe, durable, sustainable, and structurally sound. They must help to design these buildings so they withstand the forces of wind and gravity, as well as any seismic events.

In short, structural engineers work with architects throughout the entire process of creating a mass timber building. That is, they advise contractors, designers, and architects on all aspects of mass timber construction. Structural engineers design the components of a mass timber building, such as the columns, beams, and walls. They also evaluate the various materials used in construction, such as CLT panels, glulam beams, and LVL, to ascertain their suitability for the project’s components. Overall, they ensure that the design is structurally sound and meets all building codes.

And based on the building’s size, weight, use, and load-bearing abilities, they might also advise on whether the construction should be hybrid (made of wood and another component), a free-standing tall wood structure, or an infill or overbuild. (Infills are mass timber buildings that fill in a space whereas overbuilds, as they sound, are created on top of existing structures.)

Getting Past Negative Perceptions of Timber Construction

Despite the arguments for its durability, sustainability, and aesthetics; as well as its reduced climate impact, mass timber still has a way to go to meet wider public acceptance.

Why? Fire. Thanks to some historic fires in this country and others, many perceive wood buildings as less durable and more unsafe than those made from other materials. As a result, building codes and regulations still lag behind. For instance, the International Building Code just approved 18-story timber buildings in 2021.

The good news: Mass timber buildings are highly fire-resistant, due to the fire-retardant properties of the wood used in their construction. Fire-rated gypsum wallboard and other materials enhance mass timber’s fire resistance.

In fact, in one fire-resistance test, a piece of 5-ply laminated timber lasted for 3 hours and 6 minutes at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. To put this test in perspective, here is a fact. Type 1 Buildings, often considered the “cadillac of construction” must consist of non-combustible materials with 2-3 hours of fire resistance. However, fire-resistant does not mean fire-resistive, so there are obviously still improvements to be made to engineered wood.

Building Beauty with Engineered Wood

The acceptance of mass timber construction is growing, even in a place that has traditionally resisted timber construction: New York. The city that never sleeps welcomed its first engineered wood condo at 670 Union Street.

Other recent examples demonstrate how mass timber construction is becoming more common. For instance, take the T3 office building in Minneapolis, the Framework mixed-use building in Portland, and the John W. Olver Design Building at University Massachusetts Amherst.

T3, is a 7-story, 220,000 square foot office building completed by company Structurecraft in 2016. It took less than 3 months (only 9.5 weeks) to install. The construction team used prefabricated (NLT) solid wood panels, which reduced construction time significantly. The building also boasts an LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating of GOLD (60-79 points or the second-highest rating). Since then, Structurecraft has erected additional T3 buildings.

Outside of the original T3 mass-timber building in Minneapolis.
The original T3 in Minneapolis, constructed of NLT (nail-laminated timber) https://structurecraft.com/projects/t3-minneapolis

Studying Timber Building Design at MTU

Michigan Tech has long had a commitment to sustainability in both research and practice. The university also has several programs that tackle upcoming sustainability challenges, such as the online certificate in engineering sustainability and resilience. Also, the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geospatial Engineering offers five graduate structural engineering certificates. One of them is a 9-credit Timber Building Design certificate, which has long been a “historical strength” of the department.

All students earning their structural engineering certificate in timber building design will take the same core courses: Structural Timber Design and Advanced Structural Timber Design. These courses provide a strong foundation as they progress through the program.

They will then choose one of the following courses to tailor their educational journey to their career goals: Finite Element Analysis, Structural Dynamics, and Probabilistic Analysis and Reliability.

Overall, students will learn several valuable skills in this certificate, which will prepare them for a future in mass timber design and construction:

  • Investigating how timber buildings are different from buildings constructed from other common civil structural materials
  • Analyzing dimension lumber and mass timber; and axially and flexurally loaded members, shear, bearing, and combined loading on members
  • Studying connection design, shear walls and diaphragms, arches and tapered beams, modeling, and loading
  • Designing timber structures, with an emphasis on timber buildings
  • Examining the potential of wood as an alternative to steel and concrete for environmental sustainability

It is clear that mass timber buildings are here to stay as they help to set a more sustainable standard for construction. We look forward to seeing the innovative, environmental, and safe buildings that this (and the next) generation of brilliant structural engineers plan, design, and create.

Michigan Tech Signs on to MEDC’s Semiconductor Talent Action Team

Close-up of a circuit board, one of the products that require semiconductors.

Securing state-wide chip production is crucial to several manufacturing industries, such as mobility, and to maintaining the health of Michigan’s economy.

On November 17, 2022, Governor Gretchen Whitmer joined forces with The Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) to form the Semiconductor Talent Action Team (TAT). This collaboration, a public/private alliance led by the MEDC, aims at making Michigan a leader in semiconductor talent, production, and growth.

MEDC’s Talent Action Team involves this organization, the State of Michigan, SEMI (an industry association for global electronics design and its manufacturing supply chain), and four key universities: Michigan Technological University, Michigan State University, University of Michigan, and Wayne State University. Other partners include key community colleges.

 The Semiconductor TAT has several goals:

  • Expanding the development of Michigan-created semiconductors
  • Ensuring the onshoring of both legacy and advanced semiconductor systems
  • Creating well-paying manufacturing jobs
  • Reducing semiconductor shortages
  • Securing the supply chain

Addressing the Semiconductor Shortage

Semiconductors are the foundation for integrated circuits (or microchips), which are vital components in manufacturing. Semiconductors are material products that lie between insulators (glass) and pure conductors (such as copper and aluminum). These versatile products can have their conductivity altered (through the addition of impurities) to meet the needs of various devices. Chips are found in appliances, medical equipment, gaming devices, smartphones, computers, and, increasingly, automobiles.

In short, they’re everywhere.

But COVID put the brakes on chip production. Labor problems, the shutting down of assembly lines, the closing of factories, and disruptions of the global supply chain all contributed to a semiconductor shortage. There were also drastic reductions in raw materials and substrates and slowdowns in crucial processing steps, such as wire bonding and testing. As a result, consumers were unable to purchase electronic devices as well as larger goods such as appliances and vehicles.

Protecting the Automotive Industry

But the global semiconductor shortage caused significant problems for the automotive industry, driving down both production and sales. Some companies, such as GM, were even forced to build vehicles that were missing parts. By some estimates, the reductions in automotive sales were extreme: down by 80% in Europe, 70% in China, and nearly 50% in the United States.

Why the plummeting sales? Even the most basic automobile is heavily reliant upon semiconductors. That is, the average car can contain more than 100 chips. These tiny devices power such necessary components as the navigation display, digital speedometer, and fuel-pressure sensors.

More sophisticated vehicles, on the other hand, may contain thousands of these chips. For instance, these chips are found in advanced safety features, electrical and powertrain systems, and connectivity components.

And the need for these chips in expanding. Market research company Yole predicts that by 2026, semiconductors in cars will value $78.5 billion dollars, which adds up to a 14.75% CAGR from 2020.

Therefore, securing the semiconductor supply chain is especially crucial to the mobility industry, and, by extension, to Michigan’s economy. To help prevent these shortages and their repercussions, and to further tap into the burgeoning semiconductor market, Michigan’s Semiconductor TAT  is on board to secure the state’s semiconductor production.

Accessing Michigan’s Semiconductor Talent

Michigan is well-suited to take advantage of these funding opportunities. The state has a history of semiconductor manufacturing. That is, Michigan is home to Hemlock (semiconductors), SK Siltron (semiconductor wafers), and KLA (semiconductor R & D and supply). Even closer to Michigan Tech is Calumet Electronics, which has been in Calumet since 1968. This Michigan company specializes in manufacturing printed circuit boards for the domestic industrial, power, aerospace, defense, medical, and commercial markets.

What’s more. This state has almost 50 semiconductor-related courses and programs. Michigan Tech, for instance, from its undergraduate to graduate degrees in materials engineering, mechanical engineering, and its electrical and computer engineering ; as well as its specialized graduate certificates in manufacturing engineering and automotive systems, has a long history in preparing students for all things semiconductors. Whether its the materials from which they are made, to their design, processing, properties, applications, integrations, and even their repurposing, Tech has a program. The university also has a history of collaborating with the automotive industry and helping to ensure its success.

Furthermore, on May 5, 2022, The Michigan Strategic Fund approved the Semiconductor Technician Apprenticeship Network Program. Michigan is one of only three states, in fact, that is launching plans to define curricula that will support employers in the semiconductor industry.

In short, both Michigan Tech and the state have the drive, talent, resources, and history to advance semiconductor production and to make Michigan a leader on both the national and global stages.

Making a Historic Investment in Chip Technology

The Semiconducor TAT answers the call of the bipartisan 2022 CHIPS and Science Act (August 9, 2022). Nearly a year in the making, this act implemented previous programs under the 2021 CHIPS for America Act (January 2021). It also authorized nearly $250 billion in semiconductors and scientific research and development. This monumental amount adds up to the country’s largest publicly funded R & D program.

The CHIPS and Science Act responds not only to semiconductor shortages, but also to the decline in American microchip fabrication. That is, in January 2021, the US manufactured 12% of the world’s chips, which is down from 37% in the 1990s.

The act, which focuses on building key critical semiconductor technologies in the United States, has several goals:

  • Building a stronger and more diverse workforce
  • Creating high-paying technical manufacturing jobs
  • Supporting and extending American manufacturing
  • Investing in American science and innovation
  • Rebuilding and securing our supply chains

Most of the act’s funds ($169.9 billion) are dedicated to research and innovation. These funds are dispersed among several foundations, which include the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Commerce (DOC), Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

All departments will expand semiconductor research, development, training, and talent. For instance, in its budget, NSF’s mandate is investing in research, building a STEM workforce, and expanding rural STEM education.

Supporting the Growth of Local and State Economies

The act also directs the DOC to create 20 geographically distributed regional technology hubs. These hubs will focus on developing technology, creating jobs, promoting U.S. innovation, and providing economic development activities for distressed communities.

Besides the $169.9 billion dedicated to research, there is a $54.2-billion-dollar federal advancement for domestic semiconductor production and public wireless supply chain innovation. $39 billion, the responsibility of the Department of Commerce (DOC) Manufacturing Incentives, is allocated to building, extending, and modernizing domestic semiconductor facilities. Another $200 million is for jump-starting the development of the domestic semiconductor workforce, which has faced extreme labor shortages.

In short, the CHIPS and Science Act will support American manufacturing and create jobs, It will also ensure that, when it comes to STEM education, semiconductor research, and chip production, the US will be a global force.

Taking First Crucial Steps: What’s Next for the TAT?

The ultimate goal of the Semiconductor TAT is to help Michigan access funding in order to increase its STEM workforce. Another objective is leveraging the state’s talent, assets, resources, so that it leads the future of the semiconductor industry.

But big goals begin with small steps. The TAT’s first objective is having its partners form advisory boards. These boards will provide strategic direction on the semiconductor programs, talent, and research that exist at Michigan’s universities and colleges. They will also analyze the “broader semiconductor and technology ecosystem” to develop a better understanding of industry needs for semiconductors.

The university community looks forward to learning about Michigan Tech’s contributions to the Semiconductor TAT as well as this group’s ongoing initiatives.

Michigan Tech Joins Nexteer in Fellowship Education Partnership

Sign at Nexteer welcoming MTU to its organization.

Electric vehicles. Connected software-enabled automobiles. Advanced electric power and steer-by-wire systems. As these advances and others demonstrate, keeping pace with the transformation of technologies in the automotive industry is both an opportunity and a challenge. Both Michigan Technological University and Nexteer Automotive understand that higher education offers one avenue to develop solutions for these evolving trends and technologies.beteen

Therefore, to help meet ongoing industry needs, Michigan Tech and Nexteer have joined forces.

On October 20, 2022, leaders from Michigan Tech and Global Campus visited Nexteer Automotive’s Global Technical Center in Saginaw, Michigan. The purpose: signing an Education Partnership Agreement with Nexteer Automotive.

This unique agreement will allow Nexteer employees to pursue advanced degrees from Michigan Tech. By doing so, they get to develop their interests, level up their education, and acquire in-demand skills. Furthermore, employees will also gain the benefits of furthering their own competitive advantages while acquiring the industry-specific knowledge needed for Nexteer’s high-growth areas. And for Nexteer, this fellowship will attract, retain, and grow its talented workforce. 

How does this partnership work? Current Nexteer employees will receive fellowships to enroll in one of Michigan Tech’s online graduate certificates or master’s degree programs. These fellowships are available for up to four years, provided the recipients continue to meet Tech’s eligibility requirements.

The CEO of Nexteer and the president of MTU shake hands at a table over the signing of Michigan Tech's Corporate Education Fellowship. In the background are leaders from their organization.
Leaders from Michigan Tech and Nexteer at the signing ceremony. Robin Milavec (President, Chief Technology Officer, Chief Sales Officer, & Executive Board Director of Nexteer) shakes hands with Michigan Tech President Richard Koubek.

Building Bridges with Nexteer Automotive

The fellowship program is part of Global Campus’s missions to a) build relationships between academia and industry; and b) make quality online education more accessible to diverse adult learners.

Robin Milavec, Nexteer’s President, CTO, CSO, & Executive Board Director, also spoke of the importance of partnerships between industry and education. He recognized that Nexteer resides in a “dynamic environment where technology is rapidly changing.” Collaborating with a university, then, make sense. This program, which makes “continuing educational development opportunities” more accessible, will help Nexteer achieve its goals.

Overall, it’s a win-win relationship. That is, Nexteer gets to “to tap into a very rich pipeline of talent and skills that we need to fuel our future growth.” Also, Michigan Tech is “able to tap into industry and see their challenges.”

Milavec also recognized the competencies and preparedness of Michigan Tech graduates, noting their valued ability to “hit the ground running.”

Robin Milavec, President, CTO, CSO, & Executive Board Director of Nexteer

In terms of attracting, retaining, and growing our employees, the partnership with Michigan Tech is really one of the foundational elements of our future. . . it gives us that lifeline into continuing education so our employees can continue to develop and help us solve our industry-specific problems.

Robin Milavec, President, CTO, CSO, & Executive Board Director of Nexteer

Working with an Industry Innovator

Headquartered in Auburn Hills, Michigan, Nexteer is a leading motion control technology company with a global reach. Currently, the organization has 27 manufacturing plants, with multiple operations in North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Collaborating with Nexteer is a natural fit for Michigan Tech. At the signing ceremony, President Koubek affirmed that Michigan Tech is “a bit unique as an institution, in that our founding legislation established that we are to help advance” Michigan’s industries. “This partnership helps us to actualize that responsibility.”

Furthermore, Tech also has a long history of working with the automotive industry. Our university offers several online certificates and degrees that help students develop skills in automotive technologies: Online Hybrid Electric Drive Engineering Vehicle CertificateAutomotive Systems and Controls Certificate, Control systems, and Vehicle dynamics.

And Tech’s educational mission of “discovering new knowledge through research, and launching new technologies through innovation” aligns well with Nexteer’s vision of striving for “relentless innovation.” The company is also respected for delivering high-quality, next-level electric power and steer-by-wire systems, steering columns, driveline systems, and driver-assistance systems. A few of Nexteer’s clients include BMW, Ford, General Motors, Renault-Nissan Mitsubishi Alliance, General Motors, Stellantis, Toyota, and Volkswagen.

Collaborating to Prepare for Industry 4.0

The signing ceremony was just the first step in a long and fruitful relationship between Michigan Tech and Nexteer.

Next, David Lawrence and his Global Campus team will hold a series of in-person and virtual interest sessions to Nexteer employees. These sessions will explain more details about and the benefits of this unique program.

Higher education will equip Nexteer Automotive employees to meet the challenges of the mobility revolution. It will also prepare them to address the technological developments of Industry 4.0. Or, as President Koubek put it, Tech is both honored and excited to partner with organizations such as Nexteer. They “will be the ones that are transforming and leading our country in the fourth industrial revolution.”

Michigan Tech and Global Campus look forward to working with Nexteer Automotive and helping to grow the organization’s success. We are also happy to welcome Nexteer employees into our university community.

Michigan Tech + Stellantis: Collaboration and Innovation

Michigan Tech university students standing up and learning in one of the automotive labs at Stellantis.

(Writer’s note: this is a slightly revised, previously published article.)

Opening Up New Educational Pathways for Michigan Tech Students

The main initiatives of the Michigan Tech Global Campus are growing programs, promoting online learning, and raising awareness of Tech’s online offerings. Along with these, though, David Lawrence, Vice-President for Global Campus and Continuing Education, is always searching for additional opportunities. He strives to develop mutually beneficial partnerships between academia and industry. He seeks new educational pathways for all students, whether they are undergraduates or graduates.

Meeting these latter two goals is the main purpose of Stellantis’ PReP. PReP, or the Propulsion System Readiness Engineering Program, is an educational partnership between Michigan Tech and automotive company Stellantis. If you haven’t heard of Stellantis, it is a global company that comprises several European and American-rooted iconic brands. Its brands include, but are not limited to, Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Citroen, Dodge, Fiat, Jeep, Maserati, Peugeot, and Ram. Stellantis is also a respected automotive industry leader. It aspires to be “the greatest sustainability mobility tech company” as well as a front runner in advancing technology for the mobility revolution. Several Michigan Tech alumni also work at this innovative organization.

PReP: Preparing Michigan Tech Students for the Mobility Revolution

PReP will benefit both Michigan Tech students and Stellantis. That is, students will acquire automotive systems knowledge, work experience, and applicable skills. The end result: having the necessary tools to transition into a Stellantis position, spring boarding their careers.

This program, targeted at incoming Michigan Tech Junior students, will supplement the last two years of their engineering degrees. That is, on top of their regular program courses, students will take both core (year three) and advanced courses (year four) that focus on vehicle electrification. For instance, some of the core courses in the first semester include Propulsion Architecture, Engine/eMotor, Transmission/Axle, Battery, Fuel economy/Emissions, Power Electronics, and Communication.

Along with attending weekly lectures from Stellantis propulsion experts, students will also get valuable hands-on experience. They will take facility tours, participate in teardowns, and have paid summer and senior-year internships. Through these experiences and mentorships with industry experts, they will develop communication, leadership, and professional skills.

Partnering with an Industry Leader

Michigan Tech’s mission is to strive to

create solutions for society’s challenges by delivering action-based undergraduate and graduate education, discovering new knowledge through research, and launching new technologies through innovation.

Michigan Tech Vision/Mission

Similar to Michigan Tech, Stellantis is also committed to developing advanced technology while promoting sustainability and transparency. Stellantis strives to balance financial and environmental needs. Its Dare Forward initiative (March 2022) further expanded and quantified these goals. That is, the company has pledged to increase its remote workforce, put more battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) on American roads, and reduce its carbon footprint by 50%. In other words, sustainability is not solely a buzzword for Stellantis, but similar to our university’s sustainability promise, part of its ongoing strategic initiatives.

Both Michigan Tech and Stellantis value diversity, equity, and inclusivity. Stellantis’ community of employees spans over six regions and comprises over 170 nationalities. And the company is not stopping here. It is also striving to create a more equitable workplace for women. In fact, by 2030, its goal is having women holding at least 35% of all leadership positions.

Applying to the PReP

The PReP program, which should start in Fall 2023, will be available to a limited number of Michigan Tech students who

  • are enrolled as either electrical or mechanical engineering majors
  • sophomores who have at least two years available in their degree program
  • have at least a 3.0 cumulative GPA

Students must commit to participating enthusiastically in the program, attending all the lectures and events, and meeting other rigorous criteria.

Stay tuned for more announcements about eligibility and application.

And while you are here, please extend a big thank-you to the bridge-building and creative thinking of David Lawrence. In his role as Vice President for Global Campus and Continuing Education, Lawrence is not only looking out for Michigan Tech’s online programs, but also the entire university community. When opportunity knocks, Lawrence does his best to be there, making sure our university is right there alongside him.