Focus on the Workforce: Factory or School or Both?
The Advanced Manufacturing Center (AMC) at the Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing and Technology (SiMT; Florence, SC) is an educational institution—but it's also a factory.
The SiMT is associated with nearby Florence Darlington Technical College, which is the degree-granting authority. However, SiMT's 146-acre (59-hectare) site and physical plant (i.e., factory) is located about three-quarters of a mile (0.47 km) down the road. Shawn Reed, program director, Machine Tool Technology, says: "We designed the AMC—the focal point and the first building at the SiMT site—to be, as much as possible, a real-world manufacturing environment. We only teach two college curriculum programs here—engineering technology and machine tools."
The AMC operates in two quite different worlds. It's both an educational facility and a manufacturing plant. The campus also has conference, meeting, and convention-center facilities to promote the exchange of ideas among academics, industrial suppliers, and the manufacturing community.
Of course, half the focus at the AMC is on the education of students, who are either enrolled in a college degree program in engineering technology, machining, or CNC, or who are employed by local industry and are participating in continuing education or company-sponsored, customized training programs. The other emphasis is on providing services to partnering manufacturers located as far away as Pennsylvania or Florida.
One of those services is providing skilled workers for 48 manufacturers in three nearby counties. Reed reports that SiMT can't graduate students fast enough to meet the demand for trained labor.
Other services involve helping partner companies launch new manufacturing processes or develop new products. Creating prototypes inexpensively (through rapid prototyping technology) and helping manufacturers troubleshoot manufacturing problems are additional services offered through the AMC.
Opened in August of 2007, the AMC includes four centers devoted to 3-D/Virtual Reality, Workforce and Leadership Development, Rapid Prototyping, and Advanced Manufacturing. "One of our goals is to help attract new industries to our area," explains Reed. "For that purpose we are planning to construct a new manufacturing incubator facility. Groundbreaking is scheduled for 2010."
The Advanced Manufacturing Arena in the AMC is heavily oriented toward CNC machining. Students work and study there from 8 am to 3 pm—almost as if they were working a factory shift. Unlike most real-world shops, however, the plant floor is loaded with the best SLA and SLS rapid prototyping, CNC milling, multiaxis machining, turning, waterjetcutting, and EDM technology.
To program these systems, the AMC has 20 seats of Mastercam X3 software. Reed says it's a rare day in the life of the AMC when all of those seats are not fully occupied. Mastercam was selected because of its precision and ease of use and, most importantly, because a majority of local area manufacturers currently use this product.
To improve the CAM credentials of its students, the AMC is now on track to become a Mastercam-certified training facility with accredited instructors who can provide the same level of instruction and certification as the Mastercam Educational Division facility in Washington State.
Much of AMC's success can be attributed to a commitment to partnerships. While the college invested millions in the creation of the Advanced Manufacturing Center at SiMT, this funding was matched by numerous contributions from technology suppliers and industrial partners. Many of these partnerships are far-reaching. The relationship with Mastercam is one example of such an arrangement.
The SiMT not only has a relationship with Mastercam's separate educational division, but with the local reseller for Mastercam's educational products and the reseller for Mastercam products that are sold directly to manufacturers. These relationships, according to Reed, help the institution meet the needs of students and the industries that rely on the AMC for manpower, training, and manufacturing support.
On the educational side of things, these relationships provide AMC instructors with two avenues of support: Will Slota, who is on the staff of Mastercam in Washington State, and the local academic reseller, Learning Labs Inc. (Calhoun, GA). Recently, Slota used the conference facilities at the AMC to conduct Mastercam teacher training not only for AMC staffers but also educators from Tennessee, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, North Carolina, and other parts of South Carolina. On an asneeded basis, AMC staffers rely on both Slota and Learning Labs for fast answers about particular CAM applications, or for how the CAM software can be best used for a special student project or by the faculty for consulting work.
On the industrial-consulting side of the AMC's outreach program, the regional commercial reseller, Barefoot CNC (Morganton, NC), is available to help the AMC staff solve manufacturing-process problems for local manufacturers. It also provides these manufacturers with support by conducting demonstrations and seminars on the use of the latest CAM software releases. This work helps local manufacturers stay current with the latest approaches to CAM, and aware of the many skill sets that AMC graduates can provide as new employees.
The most recent of these demonstrations occurred in October 2008. The Barefoot CNC trainer took advantage of some of the AMC's new multimedia training and meeting rooms, which are designed to facilitate these sorts of events.
Does this combination of a factory and a school actually work? Consider a couple of recent successful projects: A nearby manufacturer of welding equipment came to the AMC for help in improving productivity for some of their manufacturing processes. They had just purchased two new CNC machines, and the AMC used Mastercam to create some workholding solutions that reduced setup time and overall labor content for these operations. Setting up the old manufacturing process used to take about 8 hr—it now requires 20–30 min with the new workholding system.
During the same timeframe, the AMC worked with the state of South Carolina to provide CNC training to unemployed workers who had no previous experience with this technology. Ten of the 15 students enrolled in the program graduated. Based on the skills they exhibited during their training and proficiency testing, a welding equipment manufacturer hired all of them. It's more than likely that some of these graduates will be working in the manufacturing processes developed through the AMC's consulting services.
This article was first published in the August 2009 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.