Companies need more than strong backs to succeed in manufacturing today; they need workers who can program and maintain robots to automate production on the factory floor. To meet this need, Columbia State Community College recently launched an Advanced Integrated Industrial Technology (AiiT) program to supply area companies with the tech-savvy workers they need to stay competitive in the automation age.
“The development of the AiiT program was one of those rare events in life where all the elements came together at the right time,” says Dearl Lampley, Dean of the Science, Technology and Math division at Columbia State Community College.
After observing a similar program in Kentucky, Lampley decided to find space that would work for one at Columbia State. “This coincided with the availability of a lot of grant funding for manufacturing programs," Lampley says.
The push to create the AiiT program was driven by demand. Many high-tech jobs in Maury County were going unfilled, and employers were asking for a program that would fulfill their needs for these types of positions.
“We met with about 30 manufacturing firms here and reviewed our proposed curriculum,” Lampley says. “We made their suggested changes and proceeded to seek state approval.”
The new two-year degree program is the first to train for robots made by Fanuc, the nation's largest manufacturer of robotics and factory automation solutions, says John Woodason, director of the AiiT program.
“There aren't enough people who can program these robots,” Woodason says. “I had to travel to Fanuc headquarters to learn how to program so I could teach it to students.”
Course content is delivered through interactive videos that students can access at home or in the library. They can come to the Northfield Workforce Training and Conference Center any time between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. for hands-on work on trainers.
“We set it up this way so people working the first, second or third shift at their current job can come during their off time to do the training,” Woodason says. “It’s the most flexible college program at Columbia State Community College, set up for people to get into the field or improve their current position within a company.”
Raising the Bar
Currently, Northfield's AiiT program offers only an applied associates degree, but Woodason is planning to add a mechatronics option next year that will combine mechanical and electrical components, along with training in Programmable Logic Controls (PLC).
“We currently teach PLC programming and robotics, but the new program will have four classes in mechatronics,” he says.
Maury County manufacturers are already taking advantage of the AiiT program.
“General Motors Spring Hill Manufacturing has placed some of their employees in this class to upgrade their current skills,” says Jan McKeel, executive director of the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance.
The program is also a boon to the workforce as a whole.
“One of our goals is to help individuals find a job or receive training in an in-demand field that will lead to a job,” McKeel says. “Columbia State’s AiiT Program is the ideal fit to prepare individuals for a career in advanced manufacturing.”
The AiiT program is just one example of Maury County's commitment to producing more graduates experienced in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Lampley says.
“STEM field graduates are in short supply, and we have worked very hard at Columbia State to increase the number of engineering, math and science students through intense, focused recruiting and sponsoring events such as STEM Girls," he says.
The most recent STEM Girls event brought more than 300 middle school and junior high school girls to campus to participate in hands-on activities related to STEM fields.
Initiatives like these and the AiiT program are valuable because they help boost the number of qualified graduates in the area, McKeel notes.
“This type of curriculum is the perfect example of training that directly addresses the need for STEM-related programs," she says.