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California Impact

COVID-19 Raised Big Questions About How Industries Function. New Lab Will Help Provide Answers

A student wearing a blue face mask kneels in front of a gray metal box and pushes a green button.
Written By Pat Pemberton

As industrial and manufacturing engineering students prepare for careers that will likely be impacted by COVID-19, a newly sponsored lab at Cal Poly will help them adapt workforces to the unique challenges posed by the pandemic.

The Viasat Advanced IME Lab will receive $125,000 to fund hardware, software and senior projects over the next five years. The gift will also support faculty professional development and research.

The lab, in Room 240 of Building 192, is sponsored by Viasat Inc., a global communications company based in northern San Diego County.

Given the technical and economic challenges posed by the pandemic, Dan Waldorf, chair of the IME Department, said the donation comes at a time when students need to be trained to face changing work environments and demands.

“During COVID and into the future, the ability to collect, analyze, and make decisions based on large amounts of data will be extremely important for many, many fields, including healthcare services, manufacturing and distribution logistics, and development of new technology products,” Waldorf said. “Industrial engineers solve the business problems of improved operations in these fields using the methods of data analytics and an integration of smart data-capturing devices. The Viasat lab sponsorship will make sure we stay up to date in these fields and that our students and faculty have the resources to learn by doing relevant projects — including senior projects, course projects, research projects and masters projects.”

The lab focuses on industrial engineering, which seeks to optimize processes.

“We design supply chain systems here,” Waldorf said. “We design facilities for operation. We deal with analytics and apply them so we can make better decisions in operations systems. And we also work with industrial Internet of Things and automation, and the new generation of devices and equipment that need to be optimized and efficient for the future.”

Viasat is a longtime Cal Poly supporter that currently employs more than 120 Cal Poly graduates, making the university a key pipeline for talent to the Carlsbad-based firm that offers high-speed satellite internet.

“By continuing to support the education of students at Cal Poly, we are setting them up for success in industry, including here at Viasat,” said Riley Elliott, an industrial engineering manager at the company, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Cal Poly and is a member of the university’s Industry Advisory Board.

Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing approach has been particularly useful for Viasat careers, said Brandon Lobb, a university recruiter at the company.

“Part of Viasat’s culture is that we are intellectually curious, tolerate ambiguity and are always striving for a better way,” Lobb said. “We face challenges that do not always have a clear process or answer. Similarly, Cal Poly students often are encouraged to take on new problems and work to find new ways to solve them.”

Dylan Moreland, an industrial engineering senior, is working on a senior project sponsored by Viasat that has clear real-world applications creating a location tracking system to help the company with its inventory management.

“They’ve tasked us with building an easy-to-use dashboard — a visual representation of the factory floor — so they can see, at a glance, where all the product is,” he said.

Moreland will create a mock manufacturing process in the lab to test the dashboard “so we can validate our solutions and make sure they work in San Diego.”

Meanwhile, Mohamed Awwad, an assistant professor in the department, said the support will help him and students explore research ranging from investigating new technologies to developing responses to COVID-19 challenges on global supply chains and on people’s daily lives.

“Many of those students could present their work at international conferences,” Awwad said. “And some will continue to publish their research in the coming months.”

In the past, Viasat also has supported the Computer Science and Software Engineering Department. It has partnered with student organizations to hold events and provide mentorship, and last summer partnered with the Cal Poly Alumni Association to host and sponsor the San Diego alumni chapter’s networking mixer. Viasat is also a member of the College of Engineering’s Corporate Dean’s Club.