Students at the University of South Carolina’s College of Engineering and Computing are some of the best in the country, even the world. As dean of the college, I think it’s critical for the university to support them by providing the richest and most advanced research opportunities possible. Our deep partnerships and long-term research programs with leading manufacturing companies across industries help ensure that we do just that.

The state of South Carolina is fortunate to be one of the top five most rapidly growing manufacturing states in the country today, and the university benefits from that. Industries don’t necessarily move here because the state has some great universities, but they soon discover that we can help them with some of their biggest problems.

We help companies think outside the box. They may be focused on quarterly goals, but we can help them focus on their long-term aims because we’re in the business of long-term research. Because we focus on the longer term, we can work with industry on problems whose solutions could truly be transformative.

We have one of the few European-style labs in a U.S. university. Our students work on full-size equipment, used to produce advanced materials for a range of industries. For example, we created one of the most capable 3D printers for carbon-reinforced composites. It’s our intellectual property, but we built it to work very closely with a major aerospace manufacturer. Our students work with the actual composite technology that the company uses to build its aircraft, so they get hands-on experience at industry scale.

I’m very excited about the fact that we’ve recently added an Artificial Intelligence (AI) element to our research. For example, we’re in discussions with a major appliance manufacturer about the next generation of smart appliances. We think that IBM’s Watson IoT Platform can help the appliances learn and adjust their functioning based on the behavior of a home’s occupants to improve health, safety, and comfort.

We’re also looking at longer-term research to create physical models that will help the company know where to put its sensors and what to look for from those sensors. Our sweet spot is the physical modeling and prediction of what to monitor and what to expect. So, AI is becoming embedded in some of our research, especially the more applied work. I think faculty and students will thrive on this future-looking research, and we can add value to our industry partners.

We work on problems of interest to industry because, ultimately, there are a lot of beautiful, theoretical problems embedded in the challenging problems of industry. For the companies we work with, we’re problem solving. As a university, we’re doing research that will have lasting academic as well as private and public sector impact.

Every time we are successful with one company, word of mouth brings us someone else to work with. Over time, we have expanded our work into all the manufacturing industries as well as health sciences and health IT, which is a huge part of the South Carolina economy. And the companies we work with come back to us. This helps fund further research, which attracts more students to the university.

Our ultimate goal, of course, is to help our students. They get experience on industry-standard tools while working very closely on problems of interest to industry. If they want to get a job after graduation, they’ll often get hired a few months into a year-long research project for a company. If they want to go to graduate school, they can continue their research on the long-term topics.

I think the projects that our students work on will turn out to be game-changers on several levels. They are being both educated and trained on the real technology of the future. And, by training them on actual equipment that’s being used worldwide, we are preparing them to embrace that future. I can’t imagine a better outcome for our students.

 

Hossein Haj-Hariri is dean of the College of Engineering and Computing at the University of South Carolina. He is a distinguished engineering researcher with extensive experience in forming industry partnerships. He received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from MIT. Before becoming dean at Carolina in 2016, he served as professor and chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. In his role as dean, Haj-Hariri leads the effort to build on the university’s strengths in critical research areas such as energy, cyber security, aerospace and advanced materials.