Robotics manufacturing shows Michigan’s automation leadership

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By EVAN JONES
Capital News Service

LANSING — Engineering students at Northwestern Michigan College program autonomous rovers to inspect environments underwater and in the air in-real time.

The rovers aren’t the only things on the move in a burgeoning robotics industry that experts say is a key to Michigan’s economy.

“We’re always going to be trying to move to some new technology – and we just kind of have to be ready for it,” said Jason Slade, the director of technical academics at the Traverse City school.

Automation could reshape Michigan’s workforce, experts say.  And the state is a leader in both manufacturing robots and in training employers to use them.

Michigan leads the U.S. with more than 28,000 robots mostly engineered in state, 12% of the nation’s total, according to a 2017 Brookings Institution report

The state’s aging population creates a gap in the skilled labor pool that automation could fill, said Joseph Cvengros, a vice president at FANUC America, a Rochester Hills company that recently opened a 461,000-square-foot robot factory. 

“The next generation isn’t as large so the way that companies are going to stay competitive is to have a balance of highly technical skilled people and automation,” he said. 

The change doesn’t eliminate humans from the process, said Rep. Brian Elder, D-Bay City. Elder also chairs the House labor caucus.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to reach a point in which we don’t need human beings to do manufacturing work,” Elder said. “Every once in a while people will say, ‘everything is going to go away,’ and that’s just not true. Will things be different? Undoubtedly.”

The rise in Michigan of industrial robots that are getting smaller and smarter isn’t surprising, said Drew Coleman, the director of foreign direct investment, growth and development for the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC).

“We’ve had robots and automation since Henry Ford invented the assembly line,” Coleman said. “If you think of anything that you buy, it’s been touched by a robot likely at some point,”

And experts say rather than looking at them as worker replacements, they should be viewed as the source of highly skilled jobs.

“We believe that this is opening up opportunities for Michigan in making us more competitive,” Cvengros said.

Automation has applications as diverse as more precise surgeries and self-driving semi-trucks, said Otie McKinley, the MEDC’s media and communications manager.

It requires “a transition of skill sets from the current workforce in addition to the attraction of a new workforce,” McKinley said.

Elder said the recent deal between the United Auto Workers and General Motors allowed for specific automation technology training for workers.

“The corporations and the union understand that well-trained workers will continue to make products that are good enough to demand market share,” Elder said.

Community colleges are stepping up with training programs that work with local employers, said Michael Hansen, the president of the Michigan Community College Association. 

Schools with FANUC-certified education programs partner with companies looking to hire graduates skilled in programming and using robots in the workplace, Cvengros said.   

Michigan Technological University partnered with Bay De Noc Community College in the Upper Peninsula to create a robotics and software development program in 2018. The  hands-on training program offers an easy path for transferring from the community college to the university, said Aleksandr Sergeyev, a Michigan Tech electrical engineering professor.

The “mechatronics” degree path encompasses electrical and mechanical engineering, robotics, automation and cybersecurity skills.

“I have seen that need in mechatronics for a long, long time,” Sergeyev said. “It doesn’t teach you the depth, it teaches the breadth.”

Sergeyev is a FANUC-certified professor who can train students for jobs in automation.

Professors with that certification can also train company professionals, ensuring that they both use the most updated software, Sergeyev said.

Internal surveys showed that 80% of Michigan Tech undergraduates are interested in taking the additional time required to complete a mechatronics degree and 85% of companies want their workers to have it, Sergeyev said.  

Slade said a challenge is to prepare technology students for rapid changes.

“We have the hope that they’ll be able to use technology right now, but then adapt to new technology that comes online,” Slade said.