Automation is key to the U.S. competing on a global manufacturing stage, but the nation must train its workforce to be fluent in advanced skills such as robot programming. To enable broader deployment of the automation that will power the future of manufacturing, it is imperative that developers make it easier to deploy, said READY Robotics Corp.
However, user-friendly technology isn’t enough on its own; workers need to be rapidly trained in the skills necessary to implement automation. The future of U.S. manufacturing requires the democratization of automation with a combination of technology and worker training/upskilling, said the company. One example of success is in Paintsville, Ky.
In the middle of coal country, Kathy Walker has built a model for the future at the Eastern Kentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute (eKAMI). eKAMI is teaching unemployed coal miners the advanced manufacturing skills that U.S. manufacturing sorely needs.
“We are re-skilling the region’s people for jobs in advanced manufacturing,” said Walker. “This community needs it, and U.S. manufacturing needs it.”
Proof that the skills eKAMI is teaching are in high demand is that eKAMI has trained over 100 students with a 100% job placement rate. Most students accept job offers before they graduate their 16-week course. While the organization’s advanced manufacturing course teaches valuable skills, READY Robotics said it was excited by the opportunity to help eKAMI expand its curriculum to include robotics skills that enable eKAMI students to multiply their impact on the manufacturing floor.
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READY Robotics brings Forge/OS to eKAMI curriculum
“Robots are far too hard to program. So despite falling robot prices, the programming barrier has kept automation out of reach for many manufacturers,” said Kel Guerin, Ph.D., co-founder and chief technology officer of READY Robotics. “That’s why we built Forge/OS — to enable any manufacturer to deploy and own their automation.”
“We’re seeing incredible results from our customers who are powering their automation with Forge/OS, but we realize that the more we can train up workers skilled in automation, the more we can magnify the impact of Forge/OS,” he said.
Creating a reasonable path for workers to learn the skills necessary to design, program, deploy, manage, and troubleshoot automation is critical to the health of U.S. manufacturing, according to READY Robotics. The skilled labor shortage requires industry to make better use of the existing workforce by re-skilling workers and training the next generation with the skills that are in demand. Factories need workers who can program a CNC (computer numerical control) machine, and then design, program, and deploy the tools necessary to automate that workcell, said the Columbus, Ohio-based company.
READY Robotics said its three-week add-on to eKAMI’s 16-week CNC course teaches these skills. The course goes beyond just programming the robot. It also includes cell design, robot and hardware evaluation, parts presentation, machine tool operation, programming peripherals, and more.
Using Forge/OS, the eKAMI students were able to program Yaskawa, FANUC, and UR robots in one day, said READY Robotics. By learning a single platform that enabled them to quickly program multiple brands of robots, the students were able to spend the bulk of their three-week curriculum learning about the details of automation and getting robots and machine tools to work seamlessly together. This allowed all the students to program a lights-out manufacturing task in just 2.5 weeks — when none had ever touched a robot before.
Training to create a ‘superhuman workforce’
“We can’t hire our way out of our skilled labor shortage.” said Aaron Prather, R&D evangelist at FedEx Express. “But, we can upskill our workers, and create a superhuman workforce with skills that make them orders of magnitude more productive than they otherwise would have been. I believe this has the potential to both increase manufacturing output, and create tens of thousands of high-quality jobs!”
It’s not just thought leaders like Aaron Prather who are recognizing the importance of workers skilled in automation, but political leaders as well. On Aug. 27, Sen. Mitch McConnell visited eKAMI to tour the facility, and see their efforts to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) for front-line medical professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were excited to share with Sen. McConnell what we are doing to help train a new generation of manufacturing professionals skilled in robotics.” said Ben Gibbs, co-founder and CEO of READY Robotics. “Having a workforce trained in robotics brings a host of benefits, including higher productivity, greater cost competitiveness, and more resiliency.”
On Aug. 21, eKAMI’s most recent class of 14 graduated with the skills to design, program, and deploy robotic automation. READY Robotics asserted that this knowledge should be accessible to everyone in the industry, but most manufacturers don’t have access to an advanced training facility like eKAMI.
With Forge/OS and access to automation training, American manufacturing is ready to take the next step forward in an Industry 4.0 future, said READY Robotics. It added that it is actively working to make its curriculum available online to everyone. READY.academy extends beyond robot programming to include all aspects of automation.
“We’re excited about our robotics contribution to eKAMI’s curriculum, and we’re excited to build on these efforts in a way that can solve the skilled labor shortage at scale and enable every U.S. manufacturer to easily deploy automation.” said Gibbs.