A new museum exhibit in Milwaukee exposes kids to manufacturing.

Some day 15 or 20 years in the future, when someone asks a young engineer somewhere in the Midwest, "How did you get interested in manufacturing?" the reply might be: "The day I assembled a dragonfly." A little foam bug plays a big role in teaching kids about manufacturing at a new museum in Milwaukee.

Officials at Discovery World Ltd. hope their interactive facility will educate, inform and inspire a new generation of engineers. The 120,000 square foot facility on the shore of Lake Michigan recently opened its doors to the public.

One of the main attractions of the hands-on museum is the Dream Machine. The $2.5 million exhibit is sponsored by Rockwell Automation Inc., which is based less than 1 mile from Discovery World.

"Today's youth are filled with tremendous potential," says Keith Nosbusch, president and CEO of Rockwell Automation. "They want to learn concepts, to build things, to know what professionals know and to use that knowledge to create their place in the world.

"Our goal is [to] inspire and teach the central principles of innovation, creativity, automation and its application in the modern industrial setting, while also encouraging young people to learn more about careers in engineering, science and technology."

The 2,300 square foot Dream Machine exhibit features several interactive touchscreens, a robot, four vision sensors, a laser cutter and a conveyor. Visitors learn about the important role that servo drives, motion controllers, product design software and other state-of-the-art technology play in today's manufacturing world.

State-of the-art equipment on display highlights vendors such as Adept Technology (Livermore, CA), Allen-Bradley (Milwaukee) and Cognex Corp. (Natick, MA). Cox Automation Systems (Bloomingdale, IL) served as systems integrator on the project, which blends education, entertainment, fun and function.

The Dream Machine is composed of a series of automated workstations operated by robotic and human attendants. "Visitors explore the fundamentals of design, control, sensors, programming logic, feedback and robotics through an engaging and fun interactive educational experience," explains Jon Simons, a recently retired Rockwell Automation engineer who served as project manager. Seven engineers from the company worked on the project over a one-year period, interacting with the creative team and staff from Discovery World.

"The exhibit encourages experimentation and gives visitors a chance to directly interact with the machine's products and technology," adds Simons. "It is designed to pull back the curtain about everyday uses of automation and control."

Upon approaching the exhibit, visitors learn how an industrial robot works. They encounter a SCARA named "George" that teaches basic principles of motion control, such as XYZ coordinates.

Then visitors view a 5-minute video that describes the Dream Machine. It also talks about how automation is used to manufacture a wide variety of products. For instance, the video shows robots welding vehicles at the Mercedes-Benz assembly plant in Vance, AL.

Around the corner, visitors encounter a large motion-activated flat-panel video screen that features a virtual Lynde Bradley, the man who cofounded Allen-Bradley, which was acquired by Rockwell International Corp. in 1985. Bradley briefly explains how his early rheostats and crane controllers transformed industry more than 100 years ago, and he invites people to learn more about today's world of automation.

The octagon-shaped main gallery is approximately the same size as Allen-Bradley's famous factory clock, which is a popular landmark in Milwaukee. Visitors are exposed to miniature versions of other local icons, such as the retractable roof at Miller Park. They turn cranks, pull levers and rotate wheels as they learn about core engineering principles, such as force, energy transfer and power distribution.

The centerpiece of the Dream Machine is a fully automated, flexible die-cutting and assembly display, which features a SCARA robot. Using touchscreen controls on workstations, visitors create a personalized product by selecting from several predetermined materials, colors and designs.

Initial items include dragonflies and replicas of a 19th century Great Lakes schooner, which is also on display at Discovery World. However, Simons says the exhibit will eventually be able to produce more than 1,000 different items that visitors can make and take home as a souvenir. "It will change over time to modify or create new products, just like control and automation does in the real world," explains Simons.

A circular conveyor system carries selected materials that are picked up by an Adept Cobra robot. The Dream Machine then cuts and scores thin sheets of foam using a 60-watt CO2 laser. The robot places the sheets onto the conveyor, which delivers it to the person who ordered it. Large LED screens tell visitors when their order is ready. According to Simons, the entire production cycle takes about 3 minutes.

There are three main components to the dragonfly: wings; a head and torso; and a tail and legs. Visitors are given a sheet of instructions that describe how to assemble the 11-inch wide dragonfly in six steps, using a series of slots and tabs.

The Dream Machine is tied into classrooms, workshops and laboratories located elsewhere in the museum that offer experiential learning programs for middle and high school students. The educational facilities include an electronics lab and a prototyping lab that provide hands-on exposure to manufacturing. In addition, long-distance learning programs will be available via the museum's Web site and classroom uploads.

"Unleashing the power within oneself is the first step in the journey of technology," says Paul Krajniak, executive director of Discovery World. "Our motivation is to inspire creative, innovative and entrepreneurial mindsets that ultimately create a wealth of knowledge, opportunity and desire to explore new dreams or new careers."

The Dream Machine is the first permanent exhibit at Discovery World. Other manufacturers based in Milwaukee, such as Badger Meter Inc., Briggs & Stratton Corp. and Johnson Controls Inc., will also have exhibits in the facility. For instance, Briggs & Stratton's Milwaukee Muscle exhibit will educate visitors on engines, gears and linkages. The Johnson Controls TechnoJungle exhibit will examine how manufacturing technology is used to create and produce battery power systems and car interiors.

The Discovery World complex also includes theatres, a 70,000-gallon freshwater aquarium, and exhibits that discuss the nautical heritage and unique ecosystem of the Great Lakes region.