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Industrial Robots Take Center Stage in Manchester College Classroom

Guests got an up-close look at the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Lab robots unveiled during Wednesday's event. Guests got an up-close look at the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Lab robots unveiled during Wednesday's event.
Photo by MCC Photography Staff

Posted: March 24, 2013
by Pat Grossmith, New Hampshire Union Leader

Five cobalt blue robots are the main attraction in a new $2 million Advanced Manufacturing Technology program unveiled Wednesday at Manchester Community College.

Students, as part of a certificate program, learn to program the whirring robots in a laboratory that mimics a modern manufacturing plant. Skills taught include designing a product to making it using industrial robots, CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines and CIM (Common Information Model) management software.

The goal is to train students so they can fill good-paying jobs in high-tech manufacturing - jobs that can pay more than $50,000 a year.

Educators and representatives from manufacturing companies from across the state gathered Wednesday in the lab for a demonstration. One robot assembled a hand-held baseball game, while another was set up for laser engraving.

The robots are pre-programmed with glitches, offering challenges for students to solve, and materials are provided to allow students to design and create a real product.

The laboratory was designed with the input of manufacturing companies from across the state - including Electropac, Degree Controls, Freudenberg North America, Hitchiner Manufacturing and Safran.

College president Susan Huard said before spending $550,000 on the laboratory (another $1.5 million was spent on software and the computerized classroom), the college sought the business community's feedback about what the graduates would need to know.

"We built an advanced program to specifically meet those needs," she said.

Professor Edward Ely, who was in charge of setting up the laboratory, said one student was out of work for two years, but after he completed the Introduction to CAD (Computer Aided Design) course, he quickly landed a $16-an-hour manufacturing job.

The certificate program is funded with a portion of the $20 million in federal funds allocated by the U.S. Department of Labor to the state's seven community colleges for programs designed to rejuvenate manufacturing in New Hampshire.

Bruce Haber, 50, of Raymond, who owns Green Carpet Lawn Co., is currently taking Introduction to CNC (Computer Numerical Control)-Turning, and has signed up for the CAD class. He was last in college in the early 1980s studying pre-engineering, but didn't graduate.

Haber likes the course and just learned how to operate a robot to carve out a blue circle in a waxy block. He proudly showed off his creation to his wife and kids, who he said were impressed.

"My 13-year-old son is interested in robots so it was inspirational," he said.

Haber is learning learn how to program a robot and troubleshoot its operation. "I like making things. I'm a putterer in my spare time," he said.

Haber said basic math and computer skills, such as knowing how to use Windows, is really all anyone needs for the class. The 16-week course, Haber said, costs about $800, a fraction of what a four-year degree would set him back.

Ken Swanson, director of engineering for Fireye in Derry, which manufactures custom fire safety equipment, said his company does not use robots. The laboratory, he explained, was set up as a high volume production line. What he likes about the course, he said, is that it trains students in the entire manufacturing process.

Huard and Philip J. Przybyszewski, project coordinator, both call the Advanced Manufacturing Technology program and the robots the "crown jewel" of the college's programs. She said the college's mission is to provide students with the skills they can use immediately to find a good job.

Currently, two certificates are available: Mechatronics, providing detailed knowledge of machining, electrical and electronic theory where students learn installation, troubleshooting and maintenance for many types of electromechanical and manufacturing machinery, and CAD certificate, which prepares a student for work in an engineering environment creating drawings for manufacturing operations and to help solve engineering problems through graphic communications.

The college said local companies - such as BAE Systems, New Hampshire Ball Bearings, GE, Velcro, L-3 Warrior Systems' Insight Division, Airmar Technology, Olympus, Freudenberg-NOK and Segway - report they cannot find enough employees with advanced manufacturing training to fill jobs such as associate process engineer, lead tech/inventory control coordinator, electromechanical technician, production technician, engineering technician, quality control technician and field service technician.

CAD skills are needed to support drafters in architectural, civil, electrical and electronics and mechanical drafting.

According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May 2011 in New England, electromechanical techs, including mechatronics techs, earn about $52,600 a year, while drafters with a CAD certificate earn about $48,413.

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