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Mechatronics program to prepare new-age manufacturing workers

fr roboticsMost ribbon cuttings are routine. Bland, even.

But then, most ribbon cuttings aren’t executed by a robot. 

“You’ll note there’s a pair of scissors strapped to one hand,” said Jim Falbo, mechatronics program coordinator for Southwestern Community College, pointing to the robot across the room. 

The robot’s name is Baxter. It’s wearing a blue SCC T-shirt and is equipped with a screen, which currently features a pair of eyes and eyebrows to personalize the machine. 

Soon, local government officials, educators, business leaders, a state legislator and a United States congressman will all take turns holding an outstretched yellow ribbon as Baxter repeatedly snips the scissors in celebration of the opening of SCC’s new Mechatronics Engineering Technology program. 

The center’s opening is considered a big deal and the robot ribbon cutting attracted quite a bit of attention.

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“This place is an erector set on steroids,” marveled N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin.

The mechatronics program in Swain is a regional bet on the area’s high-tech manufacturing future. And it is being viewed as a big step forward.

“We are changing the way that people view manufacturing,” U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., told those assembled at the SCC ribbon cutting. “We are changing the way this whole part of the state thinks about manufacturing.”


Readying for the future

SCC’s Mechatronics program is housed within the Swain Business Education and Training Center in Bryson City. The program began this semester and is designed to provide students with the skills needed to work in the field of mechatronics, which combines technology, electronics and mechanical engineering.

“It’s a great place for people to become highly trained and get better jobs and provide better for their families,” said Swain County Commission Chairman Phil Carson. 

The Mechatronics program is funded in large part by a grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation, but it is the product of a many-faceted partnership involving both public and private entities. Most of those entities were represented at the Nov. 24 ribbon cutting and official grand opening. 

“Your realizing your return on investment with the snip of these scissors this morning, and there will be much more to come in the months and years ahead,” SCC President Don Tomas told those gathered in the mechatronics lab for the event.

“This is exactly what we expected, and what we had hoped for,” said Carson, looking around the lab laden with state-of-the-art equipment.

The mechatronics program in Swain is geared to turn out workers prepared to step into technologically-advanced manufacturing jobs. It is a hopeful retort to the exodus of more traditional manufacturing jobs from the region in recent decades. 

Regional and state leaders are hoping that the high-tech manufacturing sector begins to look to Western North Carolina when considering where best to base operations. The jobs available with such companies will look different from manufacturing jobs the area has been accustomed to in the past. They will look more like the type of jobs available today with ConMet, which has operations in the area. 

Dan Gerlach, president of the Golden LEAF Foundation, described the new mechatronics program as being instrumental in helping to provide the needed workforce to take on the jobs of the future. The technical skillset students will learn in the program, he said, are in short supply. 

“There are job openings for which too many people don’t have the skills to fill,” Gerlach said. “That is the easiest part of the unemployment rate to attack, so attack it we will.”

One of the mechatronic program’s primary partners is Swain County Schools. While the partnership affords younger students in elementary and middle school exposure to high-tech possibilities, it will offer high school students a chance to get a jumpstart on the training offered by SCC. 

Superintendent Sam Pattillo said that students choosing to participate in the SCC training stood to gain skills that would make them “very employable.”

“Basically we’re trying to get our kids prepared for the new manufacturing environment,” Pattillo said. 


High-tech feather in our cap

The first students enrolled in SCC’s mechatronics program represent what Falbo calls a mix. There’s a couple of high school students, some employees from ConMet and an unemployed student looking to increase and update his skillset. 

Two of those students are Cameron Kuhn and Cody Cloer, a junior and senior, respectively, at Swain High School. While enrolled in the mechatronics program, the pair also have apprenticeships with ConMet. They shadow the company’s engineers and assist when needed. 

“We get to break it down and learn the specifics about everything and then we get to apply it at our jobs,” said Kuhn. 

Falbo said that he knows his students will have jobs when they complete their instruction at SCC. But he’s concerned about whether they will be able to find those jobs in the local area. 

“The students that are learning this, they know they can go anywhere,” Falbo said. “We’re hoping to keep them here.”

For students training in SCC’s mechatronics program to be able to work in the high-tech manufacturing industry locally, the area will need to attract additional high-tech manufacturing businesses.

Economic development officials appear optimistic about the ability to attract such industry to Western North Carolina. That optimism is buoyed by the fact that the region now has a training facility from which such a workforce can be created. 

“It’s sort of a feather in the cap that may give us a leg up,” said Jackson County Economic Development Director Rich Price. “It really sets us up with a competitive advantage. Now it’s just about leveraging what we’ve got and going out and shouting it from the mountain tops.”



Starting'em early

Southwestern Community College’s Mechatronics Engineering Technology program, funded by a grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation, offers training aimed at building up a workforce capable of taking on the more technologically oriented manufacturing jobs of the future. 

Workers currently employed by companies such as ConMet — a maker of pre-fabricated components for the automobile industry — or high school students looking to boost their employability will now have a local resource to turn to for the needed training.

But the opportunities afforded by the region’s new mechatronics program are not limited to those in or entering the workforce. Through a partnership with the Swain County Schools, younger students are also being introduced to a world rife with technological possibilities. 

During SCC’s ribbon cutting event for the new mechatronics program, a group of fourth-grade students from Swain County’s East Elementary School was gathered in a classroom exploring the possibilities of engineering and technology. 

“I’m working on Legos,” said fourth-grader Kadin Webb. “We’re learning how to program.”

Webb stared intently into his computer screen. Connected to the computer was a small assembly of Legos the student had dubbed “The Soccer Fans.” The Lego creation is connected to the fourth-grader’s laptop and is set to respond to commands entered into a computer program.

Webb made a few attempts to control the Lego assemblage via his computer. After a couple of false starts, the Legos respond.

“Its heads pop up,” the student exclaimed, pointing to the Legos.

Standing nearby, East Elementary Principal Tommy Dills prompts an educational moment.

“What’s connected to it?” Dills asked. “A sens — ?”

“A sensor,” Webb answered.

“What kind of sensor?” asked Brandon Messer, a technology instructor with the school system. “What does it sense?”

“A motion sensor,” smiled Webb.

According to Lynda Parlett, SCC’s director of institutional development, immersing children in mechatronics at an early age will have payoffs in the future. It will pave the way for a better, more technically trained workforce in the years to come.

“To ensure we’ve got a population of younger folks ready,” said Parlett.

Dills is hoping that exposing kids to such technology early on will produce more than an educated and ready workforce. He’s hoping that giving young students the opportunity to explore such grounds will lead to things he can only begin to imagine. 

“It gives the seed to somebody that may be able to grow something that we’ve never seen before,” Dills said, watching his students explore in the mechatronics lab.



Mechatronics and the future

Southwestern Community College’s Mechatronics Engineering Technology program opened its doors this fall semester. Funded through grants from the Golden LEAF Foundation and Duke Energy, and based on partnerships between SCC and local government, education and business leaders, the program is geared toward training students for high-tech manufacturing jobs.

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