April 19, 2016      

It’s not a categorical, nationwide response to concerns about robots taking jobs, but in the once-industrial Midwest, an educator and an autonomous systems maker are building a state-of-the-art job training center for the logistics industry.

In Michigan, state money is funding a facility at Lansing Community College (LCC) to train people on the operation and maintenance of advanced logistical systems. The result will be a real-world training environment with a robotic assembly line.

Wynright Corp., an Illinois-based provider of material handling systems, won the contract to outfit LCC’s center. The contract amounted to “a few million dollars,” said Kevin Ambrose, CEO and president of Elk Grove, Ill.-based Wynright.

Osaka, Japan-based logistics provider Daifuku Co. owns Wynright and Jervis B. Webb Co., which is also supporting the Center for Manufacturing Excellence (CME).

The school is modifying its engineering labs to accommodate the new equipment, and its related learning space will grow from 14,000 square feet to 27,000 square feet.

Those involved in the project at Wynright and Lansing Community College said there are tens of thousands of mechatronic jobs remaining stubbornly open in the U.S.

When asked if the CME is “priming the pump” or presenting trained graduates to employers that have yet to embrace robotics in logistical roles, Lansing assistant professor Sean Hickman emphatically said, “No.”

“This is a program based entirely on employer need — on employer demand,” said Hickman, who teaches in the school’s electrical technology program.

“Employers want someone skilled in mechatronics,” said Hickman, but what they really need are problem-solvers, he added.

An automated distribution operation is flexible by design, and it can incorporate hardware and software from multiple vendors. All things being equal, higher skills demand higher wages, said Hickman.

Manufacturing no longer grim and gritty

Many college graduates still think that manufacturing jobs are dirty, mindless, and dangerous — and, therefore, socially undesirable. That is not the case with mechatronic operations, but preconceptions are hard to erase.

Wynright provides logistics automation

Wynright’s Buffer robot

Mechatronics operations are closer to clean-room environments than to the dark and grimy operations most people envision. And then there is the software-dependent nature of modern manufacturing.

“You used to see independent robotics cells,” Ambrose said. But in manufacturing, at least, that model is being replaced by interoperating cells. The software backbone has become the enabler for a single automated system — that is the future of logistics, he said.

Other would-be robotics workers, who decide not to or cannot go to college, generally know little about this growth area or how to break into it.

“This has been a pet project of mine,” Ambrose said, “I’ve been pushing our organization to strengthen our ties to the academic community.”

That’s not to say he merely wants to help schools evolve.

“As the automation wave grows, employers in the supply chain are really challenged to find the technical resources needed,” he said.

Automation on the ground level

“We pitch systems, but if I can’t show a prospective client how they’re going to maintain [the autonomous systems], we hit a wall,” Ambrose said. There is no return on investment for equipment that cannot be properly maintained for lack of trained personnel.

One gambit that Wynright uses to get clients to “Yes” is to sell training for their employees. Obviously, that negates the need to hunt for new mechatronic professionals. The internal staffers targeted for training are usually mechanically proficient.

The courses provide employees with some basic electronics skills, which often leads to pay increases, he said.

And yet it still can be a tough sell. Too many executives in the logistics industry are still in denial about robotics, even as others outside the industry worry about robotics taking jobs.

“If you look at where manufacturing is today, it’s about a decade ahead of where distribution is,” Ambrose said.

He said he still hears the famous last words of executives nearing the effective end of their leadership careers: “I get a lot of, ‘This stuff isn’t for us. It’ll never work here.'” That resistance is fading as success stories increase in number, said Ambrose.

Ambrose said he is optimistic that Millennials will be attracted to this field. As a demographic, they prefer to do work with their hands and to see actual results, he said.

“This industry needs hands-on workers with a technical aptitude,” he said. “The work provides immediate gratification, which is attractive to these younger workers.”

More on Education vs. Robots Taking Jobs: