Washington state manufacturers are buzzing around automation – MechaWA has answered the call

By Jennifer Ferrero, APR
The big companies are doing it, and the small companies are dreaming of it. Automation, using robotics and computer-operated machinery in the factory, is a key goal. In a tour of an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) like Boeing, the large format machines provided by companies like Electroimpact surround the manufacturing floor. In the smaller aerospace manufacturing plants, people-run assembly lines still exist, but that is rapidly changing.

Through Washington’s MechaWA grant, a federally-funded TechHire Partnership Grant, awarded in 2016, we are making major headway toward training the next generation of workers in supporting automation. The Mechatronics worker of the future may replace the assembly worker, but it is an opportunity for machine operators, and assemblers to enroll in training at their local community college to learn these highly valued skills.

Jason Boatwright, project director of the MechaWA grant via the Center of Excellence for Aerospace and Advanced Manufacturing, said that the program has been a success so far. In fact, on March 12, there was another roll-out discussion – with plans to bring the program statewide.

New colleges and industry partners will join a Mechatronics training consortium of 10 participating colleges and a trained workforce of over 260 by June 2018. Five of the colleges, Everett Community College (85 students trained), Renton Technical College (58 students trained), Shoreline Community College (34 students trained), North Seattle College (61 students trained), and South Seattle College (26 students trained), are direct recipients of grant funding that was used to start programs. The remaining five schools, Centralia College, Clover Park Technical College, Clark College, Bates Technical College, and Green River College forged ahead with industry partnerships, to create their own programs based upon training demand.

Boatwright said, “By June 2020 we expect to train 700 – about 150 students a year with the five grant schools; this sounds like a lot, but this could double based upon the total consortium.”

This training is critical to companies like Electroimpact, who are big supporters of training in Mechatronics.
According to Ben Hempstead, chief of staff at Electroimpact, “Automation is becoming an ever-larger part of our society. Most manufacturing and goods-handling processes involve automation now or in the near future. These automated systems are a combination of machinery interwoven with digital systems for control and reporting. Mechatronics is the field of study that addresses this intersection, and students entering this field should find many solid career opportunities from design to installation and service. Employers ranging from large and small manufacturing firms to consumer products retailers need to employ educated and skilled workers to enable this automation to be implemented and succeed.”

The MechaWA program is geared toward unemployed youth and those with barriers to employment. The focus is on “competencies in the repair and maintenance of advanced manufacturing equipment that uses robotics, hydraulics & pneumatics, programmable logic controllers, and complex electronic and mechanical systems,” according to the grant.
All students who are enrolled in the program may be eligible for internships with partnering companies and will have a career coach to help guide them through the process.