Myla Stafford, of Reeltown, watches as Talisha Taylor, of Dadeville, as she controls a robot with help from AIDT instructor Art Meadows. | David D. Goodwin
Myla Stafford, of Reeltown, watches as Talisha Taylor, of Dadeville, as she controls a robot with help from AIDT instructor Art Meadows. | David D. Goodwin

Archived Story

Education in automation

Published 7:24pm Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Alabama Industrial Development Training program brought the “wave of the future” to Camp Hill Thursday, as students at the Edward Bell Technical Center had a chance to see state of the art robots in action.

The robotic manufacturing units were part of a mobile training module that tours the state to promote AIDT’s Robotics Training Park in Decatur. The RTP trains adults in careers designing, programing, maintaining and repairing the complex units. Students from Dadeville, Alexander City, Reeltown and Horseshoe Bend had the chance to observe the robots in action and even tinker a bit with their controls.

Nick Norwood of Dadeville was pondering the bot’s brain as RTP Project Manager Rick Maroney showed him a robot steadily tracing a circuit diagram.

“So how many lines of code does it take to make this work?” he asked Maroney, learning that each movement the arm makes requires a specific line of instructions, or code.

The trailer was put into action only five months ago. At the start, Maroney said, it was an old Golden Flake trailer with grass growing through the floor. Now it contains tens of millions of dollars worth of robotic arms, “pick-and-place devices” and arc welder. More than 25,000 students got automated industry experience in the trailer’s first three months of service alone.

Each bot is known by its brand, so the gray one is called Motoman and the safety-orange robotic arm lifting and placing little steel cubes is known as Kuka. Beside Kuka, the bright yellow Fanuc plays a loosely organized game of checkers.

Talisha Taylor, a Dadeville High student, got the chance to take control of Kuka, using a complex remote to move the arm then grasp and lift the metal cube.

“It was awesome,” Taylor said. “This is something I’ve never seen before.”

Taylor was part of the health sciences class at Edward Bell Technical Center. She’s studying to be a nurse.

“This didn’t change my mind away from nursing, but it makes me hope that as a nurse I’ll be able to use something like this in (a medical setting),” she said.

With automotive suppliers like KwangSung and Seijin growing in Tallapoosa County, it’s vital that students acquire the skills to one day join that 21st century workforce, technical center director Gerry L. Moses said.

“All of the industries in the area have robotic equipment automating their shops,” Moses said, “It’s kind of the wave of the future.”

At Alabama automakers like Hyundai or Mercedes, almost all of the true car-making is performed by larger versions of the robots Maroney brought.

“If the cars are being made by robots, then where are the jobs?” Moses said. “The jobs are in repairing the robots, programming the robots, that kind of thing.”

The technical center’s robotics program teaches students how to handle the PLCs, or Programmable Logic Circuits, that tell the machines how to perform tasks. One wall of instructor Anthony Hart’s classroom at Edward Bell is lined with multi-wheel robots about the size of remote control cars. The students built the bots themselves, and are learning to program them for different tasks.

If a student can learn to program or repair an industrial robot, Moses said, they have a chance to pull down $80-100,000 a year.

Their robotics partners for automation and welding technology include major corporations like Mitsubishi Automation, Kawasaki Robotics USA and ABB Robotics. Dozens of firms, from Alabama, across the nation and world have helped make RTP’s home base near Decatur unique the world over.

“Our facility is the only one like it in the United States because no one else has as many brands as us,” Maroney said, noting each individual company has a training program on it’s own technology, but nowhere else is such a wide variety available for training.

RTP partners with the various equipment vendors, serving as the basic course to prepare quality employees the industries or robot makers can then further hone with more specific training. Training is provided free of charge to any Alabama resident interested in expanding their knowledge and options in the job market, which is a service to state industries desperate to find skilled employees to operate and maintain their equipment.

“Our number one goal is to take care of industry in the state of Alabama,” Maroney said. “Our second goal is to get a workforce up and ready to go into those industries. We take care of the existing workforce, but we also work like this to get a new workforce ready to join the job market.”

Art Meadows, one of RTP’s resident automation and robotics experts, said the main idea is “not to have people from Michigan coming down here and taking Alabama jobs.”

The equipment students viewed Thursday could easily be in use “right down the road here” at the automotive suppliers in Dadeville’s Thweatt Industrial Park. Pollock said similar equipment is used to make Mercedes Benz vehicles in Vance, Hondas in Lincoln and Hyundais in Montgomery.

“Everything we have is something that is in one of the industries in the state of Alabama,” Maroney said.

Janet Rojas, an 11th grader who was the only girl in that section of Hart’s robotics class, said she enjoys “the aesthetics” of the robotic technology.

“I just like the idea of them being around more, how to make that happen and find more uses for them,” she said.

The Edward Bell Technical Center officially rose from the ashes of the old Edward Bell High School in August. The brand new school, Moses said, aims to “provide students with transferable skills they can use in a variety of different occupations.”

Even though the school is new, he said, they are working on grants and other efforts to bring a top-notch robotics program to Camp Hill, maybe as early as next school year.

For more information about the Robotics Technology Park and AIDT’s training programs, go online to alabamaRTP.org.

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