In 2008, Mississippi’s then-governor Haley Barbour worked with the University of Mississippi and Toyota Motor Corporation to establish the Center for Manufacturing Excellence (CME). The idea was to equip students with the leadership and innovation skills needed to thrive in modern manufacturing.
The center, now named the Haley Barbour Center for Manufacturing Excellence, continues to evolve its curriculum to ensure it remains as relevant as possible. Toyota, which has a factory less than fifty miles from the University of Mississippi campus, remains involved as a member of the CME Advisory Council, which also includes leadership from several other manufacturing companies.
These industry partners serve as advisors for the CME curriculum, in addition to providing opportunities for students to get hands-on experience via internships and co-ops. This allows students to put into practice the methods, processes, and knowledge they learn in the classroom in a real-world setting.
These partnerships, among others, are what Ryan Miller, associate director for external relations, oversees at CME. And while the center’s ability to boost the state’s economy is certainly a large focus, Miller also looks for partnerships across the state, region, country, and even around the world as the center continues to grow and pursue ambitious goals.
The only center for manufacturing of its kind in the United States
Miller refers to the CME as a “modern languages program,” only, instead of teaching Arabic or Mandarin, the CME teaches the languages of business, accountancy, and engineering.
Unlike other programs that may be aimed specifically at engineers, the University of Mississippi CME program is developed across three schools—business, accountancy, and engineering—making it truly interdisciplinary. Miller sees manufacturing as the key to understanding all three disciplines and how they intersect.
Because CME has ties to multiple schools, it has more flexibility in developing curriculum and putting those lessons into practice. CME’s coursework, developed with industry partners, incorporates concepts that students need to know to succeed in the modern manufacturing world. That goes beyond technical knowledge to include topics like marketing, strategic planning, process flow, and project management. Ultimately, students earn their degree from their respective school and a minor or emphasis in manufacturing.
The center admits between fifty and sixty students each year, resulting in smaller classes that provide more individualized attention. While students can apply to join the program as sophomores, they may have to catch up a bit as opposed to those who enroll their first year.
The center itself has a 12,000-square-foot factory floor featuring some of the most sophisticated robotic equipment in manufacturing, as well as manual equipment, where students work on solving real challenges and even developing their own products. The maker space includes tools like laser etchers, metal 3D printers, woodworking tools, and more.
CME students have access to the maker space, while non-CME students can pay $50 a semester to become a member and use everything within the space.
The 2019–20 academic year was the first year the CME was opened to all majors beyond business, engineering, and accountancy. Students are mixed together in classes, regardless of major, which Miller says enables them to learn to work together to take an idea, develop the process, and make it a reality—just as they will have to do in their careers.
One thing Miller tries to do is help students understand the opportunities in manufacturing, regardless of major. “Manufacturing touches everything,” he points out, noting an English student may be interested in understanding how a book is made or a graphic design student in how marketing materials are produced.
Showing students how their course of study relates to manufacturing opens the door to new career paths. “The need for people in manufacturing is going to continue to grow in the next decades,” he adds.
Giving international students real experience at manufacturing companies
As part of the CME curriculum, all students participate in a capstone project. This means students either work on a project for a real industry challenge or develop their own products.
Miller cites a recent student project at GE Aviation as an example. The facility in Batesville, Mississippi, less than thirty minutes from campus, was creating casing for airplane engines. Running into a production issue that was costing money and pushing them behind schedule, they were about to make a major equipment investment to solve the issue. But before they did, CME students offered a suggestion to rework a process—no equipment needed. GE put the proposed solution to the test and decided to adopt it.
The result? The students’ solution helped GE significantly cut costs and got the product out on time.
Entrepreneurial students may come up with a new product idea and develop a prototype, conduct market research, build a company, and more.
If they want to take the business on the road after CME, they retain all their intellectual property. The center offers the opportunity to bring to life incredible projects.” – Ryan Miller, associate director for external relations, Center for Manufacturing Excellence
After graduating, some international students go on to earn a master’s degree. Miller mentions students who have gone on to study at places like MIT and Harvard Business School’s MBA program, as well as another student who went to study intellectual property law, proving the diversity of paths and opportunities for CME students.
“They very quickly make their way into team lead positions because they come into the job understanding the language,” he says, using the example of one CME student who got a promotion her first day on the job. “One of her supervisors asked a question about ‘takt time,’ which is how fast you can make a product to meet customer demand. That is not taught in engineering courses. She asked a follow-up question and got a promotion, simply because she knew what a word meant.”
Because we teach students to speak the language and understand concepts beyond traditional engineering, they have the opportunity to land higher-level jobs at higher rates faster.”—Ryan Miller, CME
“What we are doing is teaching about the machinery and processes, but also soft skills like working together to solve problems,” Miller says. “That’s what’s in demand.”
“Companies can teach you what you need to know about making a product, but what they are hoping you have before you get there is [the ability] to work with people from different walks of life who communicate and see things differently. The more you can do that, the more successful you are going to be.”
A near-perfect job placement rate for manufacturing students
An impressive 96% of CME students participate in co-ops, internships, and experiential learning courses that allow students to get real experience working with an industry partner.
Even more impressive, the CME’s job placement rate is consistently near 100%.
As the CME enters its second decade of operations, Miller and his team are looking for ways to continue to grow the program and remain at the forefront of innovation. At the top of the to-do list is expanding the center’s global context.
Miller, himself a graduate from the Croft Institute for International Studies at the University of Mississippi, stresses the importance of understanding that everything is interconnected. “Regardless of where you are working, you are still involved in the global machine,” he says.
Continuing to build relationships with global companies will allow students to gain exposure to the entire world of manufacturing. Eventually, he hopes students can travel abroad for co-ops.
The CME is also working on graduate-level programming, which would allow students to pursue either a master’s degree track or a certification in a particular area of manufacturing management.
“What we do has value for students from all over the world,” he stresses, noting they’ve had numerous international students participate, including students from Moldova, Nepal, and Nigeria, among other countries. “Nissan has a manufacturing facility in Mississippi, as well as [in] Mexico, Canada, and Japan. They are making similar vehicles, the process to make the vehicles is fairly standardized, but [each] culture brings a different element to it.”
Miller points out that in any global organization, students need to be prepared to interact with their counterparts in other countries, which goes beyond language barriers. “Students need to be open-minded; they need to bring humility, keep their eyes and ears open,” he says. “It is crucial to be a proactive listener. You have to want and desire to learn [about another’s] culture to better understand how to be a true teammate to your counterpart.”
His biggest piece of advice if you want to get involved in the CME? Apply!
“The experience is so much richer and robust because we have students from so many different backgrounds,” explains Miller.
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