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Industrial robots training center prepares Alabama workers for high-tech manufacturing jobs

TANNER, Alabama — Rick Maroney minds a flock of industrial robots in one of the world’s most innovative and futuristic training centers.

Maroney is a project manager at Robotics Technology Park (RTP), where workers from manufacturers such as Toyota, Honda and Navistar have come for training on the latest equipment from the world’s top industrial robot makers and automation software firms. Two sleek, modern buildings today stand on the park’s campus, with a third on the way later this year, each designed for a specific training purpose. Investment at RTP, including robotics, will top $70 million.

“This is the only facility like this in the world,” Maroney said. “We are really setting the benchmark.”

RTP represents a leap into the future for Alabama’s worker training efforts. The project is a collaboration between Alabama’s worker training agency AIDT, Calhoun Community College (located just across the street), and the world’s leading robotics companies. The purpose is to upgrade the technology skills of Alabama’s workers and prepare them for the in-demand jobs of tomorrow in fields such as advanced manufacturing.

RTP can provide training for as many as 2,000 people a year, at no charge to the companies that send them as long as they have operations in Alabama.

“This facility makes a dramatic statement about Alabama as it relates to economic development,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce.

The facility was inspired by one company’s plea for help in restarting a manufacturing line that had gone down. State leaders developed the idea for a facility that would train workers on industrial robots for use in manufacturing.

Ed Castile, executive director of AIDT, turned the idea into a reality with help from AIDT staffers including Ronnie Smith, the agency’s assistant director in North Alabama. To help develop a plan of action, Smith talked to companies in the Huntsville area and traveled to Cullman to meet with businesses there. The meetings helped identify automation skills that businesses thought were lacking in the local workforce.

Smith said an AIDT automation expert  lent assistance to the project. A group took a trip to Toyota’s plant in Georgetown, Ky., to get additional ideas. Eventually, the outlines of the project took shape.

“It wasn’t a one-horse show. It was a Team Alabama show,” Smith said. “Believe me, one or two people couldn’t have done this without the help of industry. Our No. 1 mission – and we couldn’t fail – was to serve industry.”

The 60,000-square-foot Phase 1 building, called the Robotic Maintenance Training Center, opened in November 2010. In it, trainers from top industrial robots companies teach technicians how to work on automation equipment. The facility houses three dozen industrial robots and features an automated welding lab and an automated manufacturing line that operates to the strains of “Sweet Home Alabama.”

The 43,000-square-foot Phase 2 building, named the Advanced Technology Research and Development Center, is home to four companies that are testing cutting-edge robotics/automation technology. The building has a test track for unmanned vehicles designed for military applications such as clearing mines and for civilian uses including first response.

Construction of the Phase 3 building, the Innovation and Entrepreneurial Center, is expected to begin this year. It is envisioned as a place where companies can build and adapt robots and automation for new uses. After RTP officials heard requests from industry, the building also will likely include a component that focuses on dispensing paints and coatings.

Today, the RTP has partnerships with the world’s leading industrial robotics companies, including  Fanuc, ABB, Kuka, OTC, Cloos, Kawaski, Mitsubishi and Motoman, which place their equipment there. To assemble such a line-up of advanced robots would cost millions of dollars. And the line-up is constantly changing as companies change out the equipment for new training programs or to show off what’s new in their product line.

Every week, a new company joins the roster of those that have used the facility to train workers, Maroney says. Besides the state’s auto makers, their suppliers, including Cullman’s Rehau and Birmingham’s Kamtek, have sent team members, he said. The United Launch Alliance, which manufactures Delta and Atlas rockets in Decatur, has called on the RTP. Navistar recently installed a welding robot and will train workers there, he added. Carpenter Technology, which is building a specialized metal alloys plant in Limestone County, will train job candidates there.

“It’s not just automakers – it’s pretty much anything,” Maroney said.

RTP soon will broaden its training reach. Beginning in the spring of 2013, students from Calhoun Community College will be able to attend classes there, introducing them to a career that pays experts in the field up to six-figure annual salaries.

Also, RTP is launching a mobile unit to demonstrate robotics, making stops at high schools, community colleges and other locales.

“It will give us a chance to take our show on the road and reach teachers and students and their parents,” Maroney said. “It’s a big promotion for us, but we will be able to use it for training, too.”

Smith said the facility has drawn interest from officials in other states that would like to copy it. He said the robotics companies that have partnered with RTP tell him there is no other facility like it.

“It’s a tremendous marketing tool,” he said, “but the thing about this tool is that it get results.”

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