Case Study

Digital Transformation and Industry 4.0: Michigan Tech Forges New Industry Connections

Dr. Daniel R. Fuhrmann
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The institution... shall seek to promote the industries of the state…” This seemingly innocuous phrase from Michigan Tech’s founding legislation makes us profoundly different. Traced back to our origins as a mining college, Michigan Tech has always focused on advancing the state’s economy, both in terms of creating knowledge and preparing the workforce. Over the decades, we have expanded beyond our mining roots to develop world class programs in—to name a few—mechanical engineering, power generation, computer science, and natural resources, which reflects our commitment to supporting the evolving industry of the state. 


This commitment is causing us to reinvent ourselves yet again. Building upon our historical strengths, Michigan Tech is adopting an all-encompassing embrace of Industry 4.0 and the digital transformation accompanying it. In last year’s Automation Alley Technology in Industry Report, we wrote about the important step of creating the College of Computing, which is Michigan’s only college solely focused on computing and technology. This bold step was made explicitly because of this institutional pivot. In fact, Michigan Tech president, Richard Koubek, made that clear in announcing the college, “Launching the new College of Computing represents an inflection point in our trajectory as a premier technological institution, committed to preparing students to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution.” 

After forming the college, we have made great strides in several key technologies of Industry 4.0. Here we highlight three: industrial automation, machine learning, and cybersecurity, which are summarized in the following paragraphs and establish us as a critical partner in the state’s digital transformation.


Industrial Control and Automation

Front and center are our efforts to create new programs in the areas of robotics and mechatronics. For example, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering recently launched a new BS in Robotic Engineering, which has a focus on mobile robotics and autonomous systems, including vehicles. The Robotic Systems Enterprise, hosted in the ECE Department, has a team in the GM/SAE AutoDrive Challenge which recently placed second overall in only its third year of competition. Additionally, the Department of Applied Computing, in cooperation with the Department of Manufacturing and Mechanical Engineering Technology, has created new MS and BS degrees in Mechatronics. Similar to Robotics Engineering, these programs emphasize the integration of mechanical systems, electrical systems, and computer control. The mechatronics programs have more of an emphasis on industrial control and automation, building on our strengths in industrial robotics, vision systems, sensors and data acquisition, and basic and advanced programmable logic controllers (PLCs).

Figure 1. The Michigan Tech/Donald Engineering Mechatronics Playground.

The crown jewel of the latter effort is our Mechatronics Playground, which is the brainchild of Grand Rapids-based systems integrator Donald Engineering and its president and CEO Mark Gauthier. Mr. Gauthier is passionate about Michigan Tech and what we can do to provide hands-on learning to the next generation of engineering and mechatronics specialists. The Playground includes grip force and position sensor technology, two 3-axis robotic pneumatic platforms with HMI controls, an automatic tool changing station for multiple robotic end-of-arm tooling, belt-drive linear axis system for force position and overhung load and vibration analysis, collaborative end-of-arm tooling system kits and obstruction monitors, a hydraulic closed-loop pump stand for understanding hydraulic pump technology, a PID motion controller and PI proportional pneumatic pressure control, and associated safety equipment. Michigan Tech and our students are grateful to Donald Engineering for its generosity and its vision for what the future of mechatronics education can be.

Also making good use of the Mechatronics Playground is the Department of Manufacturing and Mechanical Engineering Technology, which is currently developing a new MS in Manufacturing. The program focuses on all aspects of advanced manufacturing, including smart manufacturing, modeling, simulation, sustainability, additive manufacturing, and advanced materials. The degree has been designed for maximum flexibility and accommodates working professionals coming from a wide range of backgrounds.

Machine Learning and Mobility

Ford Motor Company has a long history of engagement with Michigan Tech, through faculty-led research, student projects, and of course hiring of our graduates. In recent years, Ford is making the pivot from being an automobile manufacturer to being a mobility and technology company that happens to make cars. Part of that change includes embracing artificial intelligence (AI) and everything that means for the enterprise. A recent project at Michigan Tech, one of many, epitomizes this new reality.

Imagine if your car could tell you that a block party is happening across town, that your favorite music is playing in the park, or that a rare bird’s call has been heard right off the highway at the next off-ramp. Researchers at Michigan Tech are collaborating with Ford Motor Company to realize these capabilities. Dr. Timothy Havens, Institute of Computing and Cybersystems, and Dr. Andrew Barnard, Great Lakes Research Center, have teamed up with scientists from the Ford Enterprise Connectivity Research group on a project called Mobile Experiences with Ford Acoustic Sensor Odysseys (ME-FA-SO), investigating how acoustic sensor arrays on future connected vehicles could be used to enhance passengers’ experiences and safety. Their current focus is developing AI that can process audio to detect and identify sound events, such as car horns, street music, bird calls, dog barks, and other noises. Students in the SENSE Enterprise are also developing a mobile testbed that the researchers can use to record sounds throughout Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. It is anticipated that by the end of summer 2021, that this team will not only have the AI to identify interesting sounds, but also a large data set by which to demonstrate their technology. Dr. Havens is also working with Ford on machine learning applications that can monitor your car, identifying problems before they become hazardous and then notify you of the best course of action. 

Figure 2. SENSE Enterprise students, Taylor Hines (Materials Science and Engineering) and Chad Bruce (Electrical Engineering), construct ME-FA-SO testbed for collecting sound event data from mobile platforms.


The above technologies are transformative, but represent countless new cyber vulnerabilities, making cybersecurity critical to any digital transformation effort. As such, growing cybersecurity education and research has been one of our primary goals. We now offer both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in cybersecurity, plus a very popular undergraduate minor. These programs are strategically designed to build on existing academic curricula and standards (such as ACM, ABET, NICE and CAE). Outside the classroom, we also have a strong tradition of offering cybersecurity outreach and extracurricular activities to broad audiences, including GenCyber summer camps, summer youth programs, and RedTeam. In particular, RedTeam is a cybersecurity student organization that achieved a historical breakthrough at this spring’s National Cyber League (NCL) competition, finishing in third place overall among over 900 teams from across the country (and tied for first place in the team score). 

In addition, Michigan Tech faculty continually make exceptional contributions in cybersecurity scholarship and research. For example, over just the past few years our faculty have published over 30 high quality cybersecurity research papers and secured more than $5 million of external funding. Most recently, Dr. Yu Cai and colleagues received a $3.3 million CyberCorps: Scholarship for Service Program grant from the National Science Foundation to recruit and train the next generation cybersecurity professionals. CyberCorps grants are extremely competitive and highlights our growing national reputation.

Figure 3. Michigan Tech students help K-12 students in a cybersecurity summer camp learn safe online behavior and fundamental cybersecurity knowledge.


These are just a few of the Michigan Tech activities, drawn in this article primarily from the College of Computing, that characterize our commitment to supporting industry in the state of Michigan and upper Midwest region. A big part of that commitment is keeping pace with, and even leading, the adoption of Industry 4.0 standards and practices and making that journey alongside our industry partners. As we continue to evolve under our new organization and leadership, digital transformation will be a major theme; digital transformation of our curriculum, digital transformation of the workforce, and digital transformation of our society at large. Such an evolution could not be more fitting with our mission and vision at a 21st century technological university.

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