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using cobots to transition displaced miners into manufacturing jobs

in robots in education by Jeff Green

Bluefield State College, in Bluefield, West Virginia, realized it had an opportunity to help solve a problem affecting both employers and the unemployed.

Bluefield State College is using two Sawyer cobots in its Center for Excellence in Manufacturing Engineering.

“We did some research,” says Jeff McFadden, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering & Engineering Management, “and learned we had quite a few manufacturers in our area. In fact, we have a dozen Fortune 500s within a three-hour drive!”

After talking with the management of these companies, McFadden and his team learned the manufacturers’ biggest challenge was finding skilled manufacturing workers. “Many said to us, ‘We could expand if only we had the skilled people.’ This was a huge shock to us – mainly because we just didn’t know,” he says.

McFadden and his colleagues also realized that while coal mining is seeing some rejuvenation, and the positions are high-paying, the sector’s renewal won’t bring back as many jobs as it once employed.

Enter the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which funds initiatives that help transition displaced coal miners.

“Coal miners have many of the skills needed in manufacturing jobs, such as welding, equipment maintenance and installation, CNC operation, etc., but need to be trained for emerging industries and technologies and their associated skills,” says McFadden.

McFadden put together a proposal for the establishment of a new Center for Excellence in Manufacturing Engineering (CEME) at Bluefield State College – and was awarded a $1.5 million grant by ARC. (Source)

The purpose behind the CEME is threefold: to train students and displaced miners while also helping the local industrial base implement new technologies. The program also helps non-traditional students, including those in their mid-20s to 40s, and military veterans, gain the skilled training the area’s manufacturers need today.

In addition to setting up the new Center, the grant has allowed McFadden to purchase two Sawyer collaborative robots – something he had wanted to do after seeing demonstrations of both Sawyer and Baxter working with humans a few years ago.

Dr. Krotseng, president of Bluefield State College gets acquainted with one of BSC's Sawyer cobots.
Dr. Krotseng, president of Bluefield State College gets acquainted with one of BSC’s Sawyer cobots, as Professor McFadden (left). executive director for the school’s CEME, looks on.

“Once the grant money came through, we purchased one Sawyer, but after it arrived, we had 10 students all trying to work on it at once, so we ordered a second one,” he says. The addition of cobots to the program will not only give students exposure to robotics and its place in manufacturing, it also will give the CEME the technology needed to act as an R&D resource for local businesses looking to learn about robots as an automation solution for their factories.

Although it’s not scheduled to go live until August 2018, the CEME already has a pilot project running with a local Volvo truck assembly plant, plus two additional projects slated for summer.

“This is a huge opportunity for our students and for us as a college,” says McFadden. “If we can supply the skilled workers local manufacturers need, then they can expand – which means more jobs and higher wages.”

To learn more about how Sawyer cobots, and Rethink Robotics, are helping technical schools and colleges like Bluefield State prepare students for manufacturing, while helping to reduce the skilled labor shortage, visit the Rethink Gallery and watch a few of our Research and Education videos.

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About the Author

Jeff Green

I'm Jeff Green, senior content and social media strategist at Rethink Robotics. When I'm not socializing Sawyer and Baxter, our smart, collaborative robots, I'm usually caught up in the home tornado, also known as my three kids. Love them, my wife, old-school Chinese food, movies, and of course game-changing technology.


1 comment on this article

Reina May 1, 2018 at 3:53 pm

Love this article. Thanks Jeff!


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