Teaching Machine Tool Skills

This transcript is from an interview with Dr. Yamazaki, professor and director of the IMS (Intelligent Manufacturing Systems) – Mechatronics Laboratory at the University of California Davis and CEO and president of the Machine Tool Technologies Research Foundation (MTTRF).  He covers his involvement with MTTRF and the University of California, and his outlook on the continuing development of quality machine operators for both the domestic and worldwide machine tool industries.


While attending this year’s DP Technology Esprit World Conference, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Kazuo Yamazaki, professor and director of the IMS (Intelligent Manufacturing Systems) – Mechatronics Laboratory at the University of California Davis and CEO and president of the Machine Tool Technologies Research Foundation (MTTRF). The Foundation’s purpose is to bring together highly qualified educators, students, professional researchers and technical specialists to promote research and development in advanced machining systems. The organization’s mission is to help the activities of these individuals by providing them with machine tools, other manufacturing equipment, software and cash funds.

Following is a transcript from our interview, as I learned more about Dr. Yamazaki, his involvement with MTTRF and the University of California, and his outlook on the continuing development of quality machine operators for both the domestic and worldwide machine tool industries.

CF: What is your background, Dr. Yamazaki?

KY: I got my degree from Keio University in Japan. I got a Ph.D. in 1975, at which time I joined the Toshiba Corporation, and remained there for 5 years. I helped to develop Toshiba's original CNC controller. With this product we were an OEM to General Electric.

After that point, I was invited to become part of the Japanese National University. There, I established a department for studying mechatronics and remained for 10 years. At the time, mechatronics was regarded as a new area in the field of mechanical and electrical engineering.

I was frequently invited by many countries in Europe and Asia and by the United States to implement the teaching of mechatronics at the college level. Throughout those 10 years, starting in Japan, but sometimes in the U.S., several universities requested that I join them permanently. I had committed to stay in Japan, though, for at least 10 years.

In 1990, the University of California Davis asked me to become a professor there. After discussing with them the types of research activities they had planned and the start-up requirements, I accepted the offer and became a faculty member of the department of mechanical and aeronautical engineering. I've now been there for 17 years.

CF: What is the background of the Foundation?

KY: The Foundation was established in 2002. Two years of preparation included establishing the formal processes and negotiating with the IRS and the tax board of California and the Federal tax board to get approval as a non-profit organization. After 2004, we officially announced that we could support the university activity by delivering the machines. This is our third year of actual activity.

The foundation is establishing itself as a primary support, on a worldwide basis, for manufacturing-oriented professors who need to use CNC machine tools. The foundation provides the newest possible machine tools by arranging donations from manufacturers and setting up delivery. Our biggest supporter is Mori Seiki. They provide a large number of machine tools based on our requests. This year, we will provide 11 machine tools.

The formal process to take part in the program requires that an institution must apply by submitting a request form that describes all of the details of the research plan and how the machine is going to be used. A Board of Directors evaluates the submitted requests to determine if there is suitable need.

After making a decision to provide a machine, we present the machine on a 1-year basis. After the year, the participating organization must submit a report of the year’s activities on that machine. The Foundation will hold an annual meeting and invite the organization to make a presentation. At that point, the organization can request the use of the machine for an additional year, and the Board will consider awarding it once again. So in that sense, continuous use of the machine is possible.

CF: Are you aware of other programs in the United States or worldwide that are similar to MTTRF?

KY: This program is quite unique. There are some foundations aiming at supporting educators or the researchers—primarily the university faculty members. But the budgets are not nearly as big as this foundation.

CF: Let me change the topic to your activity at the University of California. What types of manufacturing technologies do you address in your research program?

KY: The focus of our research is mostly on the development of the intelligent function for the CNC machine tool systems ranging from software to hardware as well as from machine design to machining process control—how to operate the machine tool more efficiently as well as more cleverly and securely with the highest performance possible. We cover a broad topic range, from the purest area of the servo controls to machine vision systems. If you visit the university Web site (http://ims.engr.ucdavis.edu), you can get details of the types of research we are currently conducting.

I am always running the project as research activities, typically running from 3 years to 5 years. These projects will be expansive, but under that umbrella we establish a number of research topics. Each student then carries one topic that contributes to the completion of the entire project. This provides the students with an opportunity to see how his work relates to the other topics as well, providing a good understanding of the industrial demands as a whole. Most of the time, even before completing the program, each student has an offer for a job from a supporting company.

CF: What machines are you using in your own research program at the University of California Davis? 

KY: At my university, we have several machines for our own research activities. These include machines from several different manufacturers. We are currently using CNC machining centers, mill-turn machines, a 5-axis vertical machining center, die sinker EDM, wire EDM, EBM (electron beam finishing machine), and others.  The majority of the machines are from Mori Seiki and Sodick. But for the Foundation, we are delivering only Mori Seiki machines.

CF: Do issues arise because people are training only on a specific type of machine, that later, transitioning to other machines becomes difficult?

KY: It is difficult to attain a specific machine tool that an organization might want. The cost of the machines is quite large, so many manufacturers are not able to allow these donations. We work with what we are able to attain. Also, the transition of operability of one machine to the other is not difficult because the operability of CNC machine tools is quite similar each other.

CF: How could you acquire the funds necessary to run your research?

KY: I am always trying to get the funding for our research from the industry. Currently the major sponsors for our research are Mori Seiki, Sodick, Heidenhain, etc. Thanks to the sponsors, our entire budget typically runs around $2 million to $3 million dollars in machine values and gift funds, along with a couple of million dollars in cash reserves accumulated through donations. The program has been quite successful over the last 11 years

There may be another way to get funding through the public organizations such as the National Science foundation (NSF). In my opinion, getting that money is good, but the next challenge is motivating the students. They know that government money is like a scholarship. Although the professors are demanding things of the students, the students often need other factors to drive them.
Without any real feedback after receiving the money, there is no real motivation for the students to make the most of the opportunity. So the university must find ways to get the students the best education possible, and that can be achieved by sending them out into the real industry. Human resource and development becomes a major task. The students must attain the confidence in their knowledge and skills so that when they graduate, they are prepared to succeed in the industry. Because of that, my Laboratory usually only accepts industrial money.

Companies have been very generous in their donations, but with the hope that they will have the opportunity to hire the students after graduation and that they will be quality employees.

Money is usually contributed as a gift, rather than research money, which allows the Laboratory to use the fund with flexibility and carry over money from one year to the next if it is not fully used. That way a reserve gradually accumulates. Even if we are not able to achieve funding for even a couple of years, with the reserve we have, we could continue our projects.

CF: Is there much competition for the positions in your research program?

KY: Yes, we are constantly doing interviews all over the world, rather than just waiting for applications. Interviews take place in China, India, Japan, Europe and other places. The program includes quite a mixture of nationalities. Once we accept the applicants as a member of my Laboratory, I will fully support them financially including tuition, salary and benefits, until they graduate.  Also, my laboratory accepts outstanding postdoctoral fellows with 100 percent salary guaranteed during their stay. Currently there are nine such postdoctoral fellows in my Laboratory.

CF: What are some determining factors when choosing students?

KY: A very important factor is seriousness. Of course academic performance is important, but the more important thing is the mind of the hungry. A starting question is focused on the current life of the individual. If the person has come from a difficult background, but has succeeded despite the hardship, then that person is more likely to have the determination to make the most of this program. They have the strong desire along with the hardship experience. That is an essential factor. We select that type of a person.

CF: What percentages of the students are from what countries?

KY: The students come from throughout the world. Of the current 15 students in the Laboratory, about 10 are from China, then one each from the United States and Japan, and then the others are second-generation immigrants to the United States, from countries such as India and Vietnam. We also receive a much larger percentage of applications from China, with e-mails coming almost every day.

CF: What is the age range of students?

KY: Currently the age range is 28 to 35 years.

CF: Let’s go back to the topic related to the Foundation, what is your general outlook on the future of machine operators in the United States?

KY: MTTRF is in the planning stages for running the training institute for the future machine shop operators. This will be another social contribution, non-profit activity. For anybody who wants to learn more about the machines, we will run a 1-month training course where they can get skills in state-of-the art technology. Training is important to run a successful manufacturing operation. The machine tool system is a key to promote industrial manufacturing activity. The machine tool is regarded as the “mother machine.” If you have a machine tool, you can make anything else. So the machine tool operator is, obviously, quite important.

CF: What other strategies could be used to generate interest in manufacturing professions?

KY: If you invite not only Americans, but also those from throughout the world, high school, community college and technical college graduates—those are the typical educational backgrounds that machine operators carry. If we launch advertisements or announcements that our programs are not only for research, but also for machine shop specialists and technicians, people will begin to realize they can be exposed to and catch up with the latest technology by coming to the United States to learn how state-of-the-art machine tools can be used. Because shops are suffering from the lack of a good supply of technicians, they are more interested in supporting such programs as the MTTRF, and then benefit from the qualified operators who come out of the program.

For More Information  about the Machine Tool Technologies Research Foundation, visit http://mttrf.org.

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