Sweet Home Alabama, the popular 2002 movie starring Reese Witherspoon, may take on a new meaning for the robotics industry now that state officials cut the ribbon to open the Alabama Robotics Technology Park (RTP). This is just the first of a three-phase, $73 million state robotics development initiative located in Tanner, Ala.
The project had been under development for three years. A September ribbon cutting was postponed on short notice after RTP managers realized the facility wouldn’t be completely finished. The initial facility, Phase 1, officially opened on November 10, 2010, and work is now under way on subsequent phases.
The RTP is the brainchild of outgoing Governor Bob Riley in conjunction with nearby Calhoun Community College in Decatur. It is intended to help grow the already significant robotics manufacturing community within the state. Governor Riley envisioned the RTP as a collaborative effort among the state of Alabama, Calhoun Community College, Alabama Industrial Development Training (AIDT), and robotics industry leaders across the nation. Governor Riley cannot run for governor again due to terms limits.
Alabama, with a diversified economy spread across agriculture, manufacturing, mining, and fishing, apparently is holding its own. According to the latest Alabama Business Confidence Index (ABCI), produced by the Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) of the University of Alabama School of Business, the state appears finally to be poised for a broad-based economic recovery. The ABCI reading of 51.6 indicates expansion in the third quarter, a welcome reversal after 10 consecutive quarters of contraction. Sales growth will be the strongest factor in the recovery. While industry profits, hiring, and capital expenditures will give only a modest boost to Alabama’s economy in the third quarter, according to the ABCI report, at least they will make positive contributions now rather than negative ones.
The ABCI also notes that Alabama business observers expect the national economic climate to have a modest positive impact on their businesses for the first time in three years. Business executives throughout the state saw Alabama’s recovery as back on track in the third quarter. Optimism rose 2.8 points to 52.6; panelists view the outlook for the state as better than the nation overall. Hiring also is expected to make a modest contribution to the state’s economy during the third quarter after 10 quarters of negative performance. Hiring is where the RTP is expected to have the biggest impact through its Phase I focus on robotics technician training.
Robotics Growth in Alabama
Governor Riley focused on robotics for this project because of the growth of the robotics industry in Alabama over the past 15 years. NASA, which has major facilities around Huntsville, has been a significant robotics player in the state. Two dozen robotics-related companies already are signed up as RTP partners, and the state is actively inviting participants.
RTP partners include OMRON Industrial Automation, a strong player in microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) sensor technology for healthcare and industrial markets; Yaskawa Motoman Robotics, which produces robotic automation for industry and robotic applications; FANUC Robotics America Inc., one of the largest makers of industrial robots; KUKA Robotics Corp., a German producer of industrial robots for industries ranging from automotive to food and plastics; and Kawasaki Robotics, a provider of robots capable of handling payloads from 3 to 700 kilograms. Other RTP partners include Rockwell Automation, Cisco, Mitsubishi Electric, and more.
The long-term plan calls for Calhoun to offer courses for credit at RTP. Eventually, RTP organizers would like to incorporate local high schools in the robotics training, probably in the form of an apprenticeship program. The idea is to position RTP as the vehicle for developing a ready-and-waiting, robotics-savvy workforce.
A Multiphase Initiative
Phase I is referred to as the Robotic Maintenance Training Center. It will house an industry training program where technicians will be trained to work on robotic machinery. The state is deploying a generic manufacturing assembly line that is suitable for most robotic products. Using this line, technicians can learn how to set up, operate, and troubleshoot a robotics manufacturing assembly line. The line will be designed to make a generic widget for training purposes. The students will be trained to work with multiple robotic brands, which the RTP considers an industry first.
The 52,000-square-foot facility will be staffed by trainers from top robot builders and will be home to several major robotics and automation brands. The RTP initially is inviting all the companies in the area to send people for training. It will provide the facility, the robotics assembly line infrastructure, and eager students. The robotics companies also are encouraged to bring in their own equipment if they want specialized training.
The initial building, besides including the assembly line, will provide space for a computer lab and an area to train and demonstrate welding. The goal is to provide whatever it takes to produce workers competent in all aspects of the robotics manufacturing process.
Phase II, the Advanced Technology Research and Development Center, will feature a test facility for companies currently in the robotics manufacturing industry. The 30,000-square-foot, $8.5 million facility will be used initially by NASA and the U.S. Army Missile Command for the purpose of research, development, and testing of leading-edge robotics used for military projects and space exploration. The structure will have appropriate infrastructure to support these activities, including an outside test track for unmanned vehicles and substantial outdoor areas for testing in a variety of environments. RTP managers hope the facility will open before the end of 2010.
The facility also will have four separate suites to enable individual companies to develop and test their own products. At press time, one company had signaled its interest in one of the spaces. A few others have indicated strong interest.
Phase III may be the most interesting of all the components. Identified as the Integration and Entrepreneurial Center, it will provide a collaborative consolidation of technology involving higher education and industry. In this facility, companies will build and adapt robots for new industries. Acting much like an incubator, it will enable start-ups to set up manufacturing lines to integrate software and equipment, test systems, and train maintenance and production staff. The $7 million center, intended to be little more than a large empty shell, will have more than 25,000 square feet of empty space that tenants will fill in. RTP managers expect the structure to support two tenants at once.
Involvement in RTP
RTP is not restricted to Alabama companies. Park managers insist they will welcome any company that comes to use the facility. Outside companies, of course, will have to transport their equipment and people, which may be a bigger hurdle than for local operations. Decatur has a commercial airport, but it is regional. Huntsville International Airport, however, is only 20 miles away.
Once the building phase is complete, the RTP will shift into operations and marketing both the facility and the state of Alabama to the robotics industry. RTP has a strong commitment from the Alabama legislature as well as commitments from the RTP partner robotics companies. Ongoing financing does not seem to be a concern.
The park appears headed for success. With one building open, a second expected to open this year, plans moving forward on the third, and funding secure, all that is needed is demand for trained robotics technicians. Now that the Alabama economy is on the upswing again after breaking its string of down quarters, demand for trained people should pick up as well.
|The Bottom Line
In an effort to ensure a steady stream of trained robotics technicians and to facilitate robotics product development and testing, the state of Alabama has opened the Robotics Technology Park (RTP), a $73 million set of facilities in Decatur, Ala., that includes a generic robotics assembly line for training, a test track, and incubation facilities. With two dozen internationally recognized robotics companies already on board as supporters, the RTP is shaping up to be a success. All that’s missing is the demand for newly trained robotics technicians to materialize.