Posted: April 05, 2013
New manufacturing lab gives students real-world experience
A big, blue robot spun quickly and nearly silently, paused for a moment, then carefully picked up a small rectangle of glass. The robot placed the glass, which would soon be part of an engraved pen holder, on a conveyer belt, which then carried the piece to a workstation.With precise movements, another robot picked up a series of items to piece together the pen holder. In a matter of moments, it was done.
This is advanced manufacturing in action. The robots, which are the marquee pieces of Manchester Community College's brand new, fully automated advanced manufacturing lab, are designed to give students experience in a real manufacturing facility, setting them up for jobs in the state's most in-demand and highest-paying sector. The new lab lets students work on a real assembly line, programming robots to be as efficient as possible. The assembly line robots take items from the "warehouse" right to the finished product.
"It's a miniature manufacturing facility," said Janet Phelps, director of communications at MCC.
The college utilized $550,000 in federal funds to renovate what was an aging automotive lab. The advanced manufacturing push at MCC has been supported by a federal grant from the Department of Labor. Each college in the Community College System of New Hampshire received a piece of a nearly $20 million grant to help create opportunities in manufacturing and technical training. During the next year, the new advanced manufacturing technology program at MCC will grow to include several certificates and ultimately an associate degree.
"Our mission is to prepare graduates to compete and succeed in the 21st century with skills they can use right now to find a good job," said Dr. Susan Huard, president of Manchester Community College.
The new lab will provide opportunities to program, troubleshoot problems, analyze results and review quality control for production. Students will create products using the same processes major manufacturing companies do every single day. Robots are programmed in advance with glitches, which will challenge students to figure out real-time solutions. A computer simulation allows students to take the advanced manufacturing class online, only traveling to the school to work in the lab once a week.
The college's new advanced manufacturing technology program is designed to capture workers who are under-skilled, unemployed or looking to enhance their skill sets. The average manufacturing job in New Hampshire pays $53,000 annually, said Phil Przybyszewski, project coordinator for the Advanced Manufacturing Lab.
Growing up, people aren't typically thinking, "I want to work in manufacturing," Przybyszewski said. But manufacturing today is not what it once was. First of all, it pays well. Secondly, it's no longer working in a dreary factory. It's more often clean, state-of-the-art, robot-driven workplaces that allow workers to practice their technical skills.
"It's less physical today and it's more mental," Przybyszewski said.
Przybyszewski said it's not just about getting to students who might be interested in this career path. It's about getting to parents and guidance counselors so that they're more likely to encourage students to go that route.
It's more than just learning to work the robots; students would get a taste for the whole management process. For example, all the pieces needed to make the pen holder would cost more than $70 each. But buying it in bulk, the college can save 92 percent of the cost. Students would be tasked with not only working the machines, but managing the process, always in search of efficiencies — just like in a real manufacturing facility. Przybyszewski said it is a vertical integration lab in that it's essentially its own supplier.
The new lab's advisory board was hand-picked in an effort to get input from industry professionals. The important thing is the college is providing training and skills in areas in demand now, Phelps said.
"This is industry-built," Phelps said.
Staff at MCC say area companies have already expressed interest in hiring students in the labs to design and build products that will be used or sold throughout the state.
A lot of times, companies don't necessarily need workers with specific degrees — they just need specific skills. The college is working with local high schools, including Pinkerton Academy, to establish partnerships in the manufacturing tracts. Przybyszewski said companies often want workers who are 60 to 70 percent ready to go, and then companies will finish off their training.