When robotics and electronics engineering students at Des Moines Area Community College are called on by recruiters, they’re often hearing from folks who graduated from a similar two-year program who are now pulling in six-figure salaries at Iowa manufacturing companies.  

As the capabilities of industrial robots used by Iowa manufacturers continue to advance, the number of openings for skilled electrical engineering and robotics technicians is growing as well. In most cases, graduates of DMACC’s program have multiple job offers to choose from when they graduate, said Brad Luhrs, program chair.  

“When our students get done with the program, there is usually a fight over which manufacturer wants to hire them,” Luhrs said. “And it's becoming, a very, very lucrative field for our students. We had two students move to Accumold this spring, and they're in the $50,000 range. As far as starting salaries, it's not bad for an education that only only costs $14,000.”

They are exactly the type of high-skill, high-need positions in short supply in Iowa that the Reynolds administration is targeting to ramp up through incentive programs that are part of the Future Ready Iowa initiative.

DMACC’s robotics and electronics engineering programs, housed in the Advanced Manufacturing Center on the main campus in Ankeny, currently have about 22 students. The programs will more than double in enrollment this fall as 25 female students from Kosovo begin a two-year energy technology program, starting out with the first-year core courses in electronics engineering.

Robotics training is also poised to take off at North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City. NIACC’s Industrial Systems Technology (IST) program earlier this year was awarded a $300,000 competitive grant from the National Science Foundation that it will use to develop a full-fledged robotics program.

The grant will enable NIACC to recruit and educate more industrial technicians, with a goal to double the number of graduates in the IST program and to expand a new Industrial Mechanics and Maintenance program that started last fall. The funding will enable NIACC to purchase several state-of-the-art industrial robotics systems and launch an introductory robotics course.

“An important goal of this project is to provide regional employers with the well-trained industrial technician graduates they require,” NIACC President Steve Schulz said when the grant was announced. “The work involved in applying for this grant has been an 18-month endeavor for members of our faculty and staff. I’m grateful for their dedication to the process and for the opportunities it will provide for our students and regional employers.”


Updating technology

At DMACC’s Advanced Manufacturing Center, the classroom and lab spaces are frequently shuffled around as equipment is upgraded for newer technology, said Luhrs. Having worked most of his his career in electronics manufacturing, primarily with companies making semiconductors, Luhrs guides students through the introductory electronics labs that provide the foundation for working with the robots.   

Walking through the robotics lab, Luhrs pointed to a wall separating it from a small classroom that will soon be knocked out to enlarge the lab to provide more elbow room for both the robots and the students. Elsewhere, additional rooms will be added to replace lecture space.

“We've been in smaller rooms, which is dangerous,” he said. “We're trying to get to larger rooms to allow us to handle larger class sizes.” The larger lab will also facilitate a more individualized program, as opposed to pairing up students at each of the six industrial robots the lab houses currently.  

Luhrs said the current emphasis on STEM careers in Iowa has tended to set students’ sights on attaining four-year degrees, to the detriment of the two-year electronics and robotics degrees. However, the latter programs typically enable graduates to land technician positions with starting pay in the $50,000s or even higher, he said. There are also more openings for technicians than there are for engineering positions that require four-year degrees.

“For every engineer with a four-year degree, there is somewhere between three and seven technicians supporting him,” Luhrs said. Those technicians are working at each stage in the production process as well as in troubleshooting, quality control, installation, and maintenance and repair.

Students in the first year learn electronics from the ground up, beginning with simple circuits and progressing to designing and building circuit boards and programmable logic controllers, the building blocks of industrial robotics systems.

“They have to know how to use this equipment, to be able to troubleshoot, they have to know how to use this equipment to set it up or design and develop it. That's why both electronics and the robotics programs overlap for one year,” Luhrs said.

Typically, about one-third of the first-year electronics class decides the program isn’t for them. “After that, we don't lose many students. The only time we ever lose students is when they either get a job they can't turn down, or there's a family issue.”


Employer connections

Craig Sutton, manager of advanced manufacturing innovation for Deere & Co., said he’s excited about the opportunities that the newest wave of technology — collaborative robots, or cobots — has for the global manufacturing company. In contrast with the large industrial robots that have been used on factory floors for the past 15 years or so, cobots typically are built to handle smaller loads and operate in closer proximity to workers to handle repetitive tasks, such as loading a machine with parts.

One of his primary roles is assessing relatively new technologies and how they can affect the shop floor. Requests from the factory floor to bring in cobots — and having the skill sets to be able to implement and integrate them — are becoming one of the biggest areas of need and are growing fast, Sutton said.

“Once [the technology is] in place, we need very high reliability,” he said. “We don’t want it to slow down or stop production. So we’re talking about a lot of technical skill sets, versus a mechanical skill set [to repair and maintain the robots]. We’re definitely seeing that growing need within our factories. They’re adding more automation and they’re asking: How are we going to support that?”

That shift has led to a different mindset in how Deere searches for talent.  

“We had been looking for a lot of degreed engineers as the baseline, but as we started peeling this back, sometimes the skill set to commission or service [automation] is more a technical degree,” Sutton said. “We’re spinning up that conversation with Eastern Iowa Community Colleges very quickly.”

The company offers tuition reimbursement incentives for its plant workers to earn certificates or degrees in robotics at the community colleges in the Quad Cities, which can enable an assembler or welder to move into a technical leader role. “We feel it’s a great positive — a lot of great technology skills are being pumped through that,” Sutton said.

Overall, there aren’t an abundance of technical-skilled workers in the pipeline, he said. “That’s why you see us investing in wage workers to improve their skill sets. We’re not overly flooded with these technical people at this point.” The need extends to positions such as maintenance technicians, tool shop technicians and general factory automation roles.

Some Central Iowa manufacturers, among them Accumold in Ankeny, have begun offering paid internships, DMACC’s Luhrs said. Under that program, the company is paying off interns’ student debt after they’ve worked there a year as an employee. Another electronics manufacturer, Garmin Ltd. in Kansas City, has offered DMACC electronics students paid internships that include housing, two meals a day and even vacation time, he said.

“So [the manufacturers] are really trying to provide that experience,” Luhrs said. “And the added advantage of that is they get to preselect people twice — once when they come in as an intern and then once they've gone through the internship program they decide whether they're going to hire, and it's worked out very well for our students.”

Another Central Iowa manufacturer, Lely North America Inc. in Pella, specializes in building farm robots that automate a number of aspects of the dairy industry centered on milking, feeding and caring for dairy cows. The manufacturer doesn’t use robots to build its robots, but it’s constantly seeking service technicians to maintain and repair its robotic equipment products for its customers.

The company’s sales have been growing 20% to 25% year over year, and in 2019, “we expect to produce hundreds and hundreds of robots along with other supporting products at our current facility in Pella,” said Chad Huyser, vice president of Lely North America.

The shortage of qualified labor is one of the key driving factors for a dairy producer to consider robotics and automation, Huyser said. “Likewise, the profile of both farm labor as well as industry labor is shifting as equipment becomes more technical and the usage of data becomes mainstream. Having a labor force that embraces the use of technology and data will be key in the future.”

The Dutch company, which has operations globally, works with Northeast Iowa Community College in Calmar and its Dairy Science Technology program to identify students with interest in learning about the robotic milking industry, and sends them through that program to prepare them for careers at Lely’s technical service centers.  

Lely North America currently occupies about 45,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space in Pella, along with an 8,000-square-foot training facility. Earlier this year, the company began making plans to expand its presence in Pella with the construction of a significantly larger North American headquarters, production facility and state-of-the-art training center. A suitable site for the proposed expanded headquarters hasn’t been selected yet.


FILLING A NEED FOR ROBOTICS

Bob Franken, an industrial systems technology instructor at NIACC, had worked much of his career with Eaton Corp.’s manufacturing plant in Belmond before joining the community college 11 years ago. Recognizing the growing importance of industrial robots as part of the manufacturing process, Franken personally donated two robots to the program shortly after he started at NIACC.  

“We wanted to offer robotics in some way, so I put robotics into the capstone class,” Franken said. “That way the students would get some understanding of robots.”

Franken led a nearly two-year process to apply for and secure the National Science Foundation  grant, which was the first project in NIACC’s history to receive an NSF grant. The program by that time had four donated robots and one purchased by the college, but still no formal robotics courses.

To jump-start the program, NIACC used its own funding last year to purchase a Universal Robotics UR3 robot last year, which Franken used to teach a pilot robotics class with 12 students. The program is expected to double in enrollment within the next couple of years using the grant funding.

The UR3 is among the first collaborative robots, or cobots, to be built with a transducer in its arm to recognize when it bumps into or is touched by an operator.

“There is such a lack of [robotics] operators today that we’re seeing a growth in these [cobots],” Franken said. Rather than a worker continuously putting a part into a lathe, for instance, the cobot is assigned to that repetitive task. “You can position the robot just like you’re moving a hand around, to articulate the arm around to train the position,” he said. “So from an instructor’s perspective, it’s a robot we can put on a tabletop that you can teach very simple commands.”  

The NSF grant will also enable NIACC to embed a newly developed National Coalition of Certification Centers stackable credential into a robotics course as a way to enhance middle-skill industrial technician education opportunities. For that certification, the department is purchasing a software program called CIROS that students will use to program the robot to operate within a manufacturing production cell to earn the NC3 certificate.

Laura Wood, chair of NIACC’s Business Division, said she believes that NIACC is the only Iowa community college that is working on achieving NC3 certification for robotics credentialing.

“The bigger thing is being able to keep your budgets in line while doing this,” she said. “A small UR3 robot is a $25,000 investment, so to have several of those where your students can do hands-on work is a significant investment. We’ll need to form partnerships with manufacturers and robotics companies. It takes a lot of cash to get those things going.”

Making the programs affordable for students is another important consideration. The Last Dollar Scholarships that will be funded through the Future Ready Iowa program are a good fit for the robotics and electronics courses, she said. Additionally, through an anonymous $1 million donation that NIACC received last year, the college offers a Promise Scholarship that picks up remaining expenses for lower-income students.

NIACC has also created its own set of standards for electronics apprenticeships, which several north Iowa manufacturers are using to send their employees to school on a three-year upskilling program. The employees are paid on a full-time basis for a schedule that builds in two full-time days in classes each week, with the companies picking up all of their tuition, textbook and tool costs.

“They’re using the program as their training instruction, and [the employees are] getting documented apprentice hours.” Wood said. “That’s how they’re ensuring they’re getting a skilled workforce. … Between the Last Dollar Scholar program, the Promise Scholarship and the employer-paid training, it really should be a no-excuses situation” for potential workers.

Programs are also expanding at DMACC. Earlier this year, DMACC partnered with the Millennium Foundation Kosovo to fund a Women in Energy Scholarship program at the Ankeny campus. The program will provide full two-year scholarships for 25 female leaders from Kosovo, who will train to return to Kosovo to lead their country’s expanding energy sector.

Currently, robotics and electronics programs are filled almost entirely with male students. “This will definitely drastically change the percentage of women involved in the program, which will be very positive,” said Brandi Skinner, DMACC’s pathway navigator for industry and technology.

The programs’ lab and class times will likely be staggered to enable all the students to get one-on-one instructor and lab opportunities, she said.

A unique aspect of DMACC’s robotics program is its partnership with the Waukee APEX program, an element of which provides an introduction to robotics to Waukee High School students in that program. “I know that’s something that other community colleges are trying to mirror, and we try to help them with that,” Skinner said.

Another way that the community colleges are reaching out to the high schools is through the school counselors, she said. Both DMACC and Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, for instance, have held an informational workshop for high school counselors to educate them about opportunities in industrial technology. Many of the counselors “had no idea that we had jobs in this area,” Skinner said.

About 80 NIACC students participated in a new ‘signing day” for career and technical education fields last year to ramp up enthusiasm.

Franken maintains connections with manufacturers in north Iowa such as his former employer, Eaton Corp., as well as companies in the Cedar Valley where he worked earlier in his career. Currently, 14 of his students are fanned out across the state in various summer internships with companies such as Winnebago Industries, Cargill and TDS Automation.

“Having 30 years in the industry, if they want to work somewhere, I usually know the person in charge,” he said. “That’s the fun part of my job — interacting with the students.”

“I’m so proud that my students are doing so well,” Franken said, “and that this program is preparing them to move up within their companies — it’s really starting to pay off with my students.”