For Job Security at the Factory, Learn How to Repair a Robot
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- In a former Pratt & Whitney jet-engine-testing facility, a canary-yellow robotic arm is rotating above a table. An instructor taps on a tablet, and the arm shifts to move in a different direction. The demonstration is part of a tour of a new robotics and automation training center that Goodwin College, in East Hartford, Conn., and engineering consultant Rapid Global Business Solutions Inc. unveiled in March. The new center is part of Goodwin’s 60,000-square-foot manufacturing facility on the banks of the Connecticut River, near the aerospace giant’s global headquarters.
About 25 percent of U.S. workers—representing 36 million jobs—could be replaced by automation in the next few decades, according to a Brookings Institution report released this year. Goodwin is one of a number of U.S. institutions investing in training to prepare blue-collar workers for that shift. While jobs are being eliminated, many positions that are safer, more interesting, and pay better than the typical assembly-line assignment are being created. An advanced degree in engineering or artificial intelligence isn’t required, but some training is.
A skills gap could result in 2.4 million unfilled manufacturing jobs over the next decade, warns a study released in November by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute. “It’s not this dark, dull, dying industry,” says Rob Luce, vice president of SME Education Foundation in Southfield, Mich., the philanthropic training arm of the SME manufacturing trade group. “It’s a lucrative industry if you have the right skill set.”
U.S. companies bought almost 28,500 robots last year, up from about 24,600 in 2017, according to the Association for Advancing Automation, a trade group in Ann Arbor, Mich. America’s industrial robot density—the share of robots to workers—was 200 per 10,000 employees in 2017, about double China’s, according to the International Federation of Robotics in Frankfurt. To remain competitive, U.S. companies must keep pushing to automate, says Tony Osladil, a former Intel senior engineer who teaches robotics at Sierra College in Northern California.
Ten to 15 students will enroll in Goodwin’s pilot robotics program this fall before a full-time program starts early next year. They’ll work with hardware and software to learn to maintain, fix, and program automated systems, such as warehouse sorting networks or aerospace parts production, says Cliff Thermer, who oversees the school’s manufacturing programs. Robotics is the latest track within its four-year-old advanced manufacturing program, created to supply talent to Connecticut’s more than 4,000 manufacturers, which make everything from elevators to nuclear submarines. “All of the industries desperately need people,” Thermer says. “But we need a trained workforce.”
You don’t simply install robots and turn them on, says Arnold Kamler, chief executive officer of Kent International Inc., America’s biggest domestic bicycle manufacturer. A dozen automated machines at his factory in Manning, S.C., help produce about 1,200 bikes a day. “Unfortunately, robots and automation systems go out of whack—all the time,” Kamler says. “As we get better at making robots useful, they are running more and more continuously, which means when they break down, the entire pipeline of the manufacturing process is at risk,” says Northwestern professor Todd Murphey, who oversees one of about a dozen robotics master’s degree programs in the U.S. Kamler is blunt: “If you want to make yourself really valuable,” he says, learn to fix robots. “You can earn a really nice salary.”
George Brown College, a public school with campuses in Toronto, even offers distance learning in automation-related disciplines. The courses are utilitarian: Students can get what they need quickly and apply it on the job the next day. Scott Duncan, a consultant who oversees robotics and other programs at George Brown’s School of Distance Education, says he expects “continued strong growth” as robotics spreads beyond autos. “Universities are going into robotics full tilt,” he says, “to really do the hardcore research and development.”
Three years ago, Kyle Mantecon had never seen an industrial robot. Now the 33-year-old is a product engineer for Inovision, a Rochester Hills, Mich., business that serves as a middleman for robot makers and automotive factories. “You would think you would need to be some sort of supergenius to work with robots,” he says. “That’s not the case.” And the earnings potential is greater, he says. “If you’re willing to work 60 to 70 hours per week and travel, you could be making six figures, easy.”
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