22 Jun Fox Valley Tech, Kuka Robotics team up on high-tech training center
Appleton, Wis. – No doubt the young students crowding around the orange robotic arm dealing blackjack at Fox Valley Technical College last week knew what they were watching was cool. However, they probably didn’t know they were watching the future of manufacturing in motion.
As soon-to-be FVTC graduate Ryan Guthrie scrolled through lines of code on a computer monitor, he explained how every movement of the arm, from swinging into position to grabbing the card with a suction cup to placing it on the table, had to be programmed by himself and a small team of his classmates. The demonstration was a short portion of FVTC’s College Camp, which is just one of several ways the two- year school tries to plants seeds of curiosity in the minds of potential future students.
“We’ve worked really hard at exposing high school students and younger to what manufacturing really is, because it’s exciting stuff, and that’s where the jobs are, despite what the press says,” said Jon Stenerson, a 24-year veteran of the FVTC faculty. “It’s not dirty, dingy jobs anymore; it’s exciting technology.”
laboratory last week.
Guthrie’s blackjack program will serve as a demonstration tool of that for future on-site school visits. Before the project was finished, it garnered interest from nearby Oneida Casino and Bingo, which sent a blackjack dealer to consult the students on the game’s intricacies. It also caught the attention of the robot’s manufacturer, Kuka Robotics, which suggested some patent ideas for the project.
That little robot dealing cards was only the precursor of bigger things between FVTC and Kuka, however. Last summer, Kuka was exploring how to expand its capacity to train its North American customers on its robots. Because Kuka has committed not to compete with the system integrators that combine their robots with other industrial equipment into work cells, it needed a way to demonstrate how those cells operate with its robots.
Enter FVTC. The German-based company has partnered with FVTC this year to run its brand-new North American training center, a 10,000- square-foot facility just across the street from the main campus. The center will house almost 20 new robots both for general training and specific applications, such as welding, palletizing and food processing. Courses will be taught by FVTC instructors, four of whom recently completed a four-week Kuka training course in Germany.
The center represents a more than $1 million investment from Kuka.
The company considers the center a natural fit with one of the few tech colleges that it has found teaching with the same level of technology its customers use.
“We’re always getting asked, ‘Why Appleton?’ We bring executives for a tour there, and they say, ‘OK, I get it,'” said Bernard Sagan, vice president of sales for Kuka Robotics. “When you tour through a tech college, let’s say in other states, you’ll see they have a robot training program, and they’ll have some used robots that are 10 or 15 years old, or they’ll have small sprocket-and-gear kinds of things.
We went to Fox Valley Tech, and they’ve got state-of-the-art lasers, wire EDM, CAD stations, and more than 40 welding training cells with brand new equipment.”
The training center is mutually beneficial. Kuka establishes a centrally located facility to train the employees of its customer companies, and FVTC receives a contract for 44 weeks of classes with a minimum of 20 students per week, with room for another class of 10 if need be. So Kuka outsources its training, and FVTC gets access to some top-shelf teaching tools.
“A walking, talking infusion of technology – that’s kind of the scheme,” said Jerry Eyler, dean of the Manufacturing Technologies Division at FVTC. “That’s enabled by the partnership.”
“We’re also in effect defeating what has been a challenging bottleneck for Kuka, and that’s training capacity,” he said. “The same people they have as trainers are also their field engineering people. Those people are always few and far between.”
As are students coming in the door looking for careers in manufacturing. But once they see how high-tech and manufacturing intersect in FVTC’s Automated Manufacturing Systems (AMS) lab, many of them, like Guthrie, get hooked.
“I was here touring the school for a different field, and they had some extra time left in their tour,” Guthrie recalled. “They brought me into the lab and showed me the possibilities of what you can do with this program – I can [do] robotics, I can do controls, I can do electronics. It was exactly what I wanted – it had the flexibility, it had the different avenues to approach.”
Guthrie added that he feels much more drawn toward a manufacturing career both from what he has learned at the college and with the exposure to some of the Wisconsin-based industrial businesses he has been able to tour as part of the school’s AMS Club, including Appleton-based welding machine manufacturer Miller Electric Co., Quad Graphics and Harley-Davidson.
“It’s really nice, because we can walk through and say, ‘This stuff is familiar; we know what they’re talking about here,'” Guthrie said.
“They’re not teaching this stuff just to teach it. This is what’s out there.”
Instructor Kurt Thern, an electrical engineer and former employee of hard drive manufacturer Seagate, knows just how practical robotics training is from his days of testing hard drive components. After a year at FVTC, he sees students being attracted by the technology link they see in the jobs FVTC trains for.
“They see some of these things, like robots, in movies and may have some preconceived idea of how all that works,” Thern said. “But they get in here, and then you dispel some of those myths. I think that’s the attraction. Kids today are very computer-literate, and all of these controls are very PC-dependent. So if you’re a little bit of a techie-type person, you’re going to be attracted to a program like this.”