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Engineering the Future
This is not your grandfather’s manufacturing plant. Here, a 3D printer casts custom robotic tooling from carbon fiber filament. Robotic arms swing and pulse methodically, crimping, measuring, picking and placing carbon steel pipe for the machining process. A robotic gantry and a semi-automated pin inserter whir quietly in the background. This is Nicholas Longworth’s workplace, where the 26-year-old former physics and business management major leads a team of automation engineers at Dixon Valve & Coupling Company in Chestertown.
Under Longworth’s direction, the Automation team is taking part in engineering the future of manufacturing for this 100-year-old company that specializes in industrial hose fittings. Not only are they adopting new technologies for machining parts, they are breathing new life into old machinery throughout the factory. Recently, they installed a solid-state relay into a 1940s furnace so the oven will hold the constant temperature needed for annealing. They rebuilt the electrical architecture of some cam-driven World War II-era equipment once used to make fuse caps for anti-aircraft shells, and they retrofitted old machines whose controls were failing.
But the bells and whistles of robotics engineering signal a new era in manufacturing. This is where Longworth and his team shine; not only are they are developing the software that manages the interfaces between automated machinery, they also manage the software that monitors operational efficiency. “Our machines are talking to one another, and to the servers upstairs, so we can better track our production efficiency,” Longworth says. “This gives us the ability to ask questions we wouldn’t normally even know to ask about what’s happening on the floor.”
To help him learn to ask even more questions, Longworth is pursuing an online master’s degree program in robotics engineering through Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “How does the back end of a robot work? What’s their process? And how can I use this information at Dixon Valve? The main reason I chose to pursue a master’s degree is to do my job better and to better understand what’s going on in the industry, so I can make better decisions.”
Longworth also likes the idea of creating something useful that powers American industry. “There’s nothing quite like that feeling of building something from nothing, and knowing that everything you do, everything you make, has a physical consequence. When a machine actually works for the first time, I feel like Rocky on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But if it doesn’t work properly, if the robotic arm hits something, bad things can happen. You can destroy a machine, or someone could get hurt. It’s not quite the same when a server goes down.”