The university’s robotics program was the first in the state and hopes to pave the way for a new skilled workforce
Last year, Plymouth State University in New Hampshire became the state’s first higher education institution to create a dedicated bachelor’s degree in robotics. Now the school has received $1 million in federal funding to expand lab space and expand training offerings for students learning about collaborative robots, or “cobots,” and learning to operate and design robotic operating systems.
The university aims to create a new workforce with specialized skills in robotics and next-generation technologies. IoT World Today spoke to faculty member Bret Kulakovich, university president Don Birx and robotics student Jacob Reichenthal about the school’s robotics program and how the funds are being used.
As robotics and automation technologies become more prevalent in warehouses, factories, and stores, there is a growing demand for a skilled workforce to create, maintain, and operate these devices—a demand that organizations have yet to adapt to. For Birx, the decision to set up a robotics course and begin training employees to university-level was motivated by the knowledge that they would create the workforce of the future.
“New Hampshire used to be one of the leading industrial states in the United States,” Birx said. “When we were thinking about the further development of the university, the question arose how we could establish an engineering degree that is oriented towards the 21st century?”
“We skipped electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and computer science as core competencies in robotics because they embody all of these concepts,” he said. “We felt that if we could set up the robotics program, we would be doing a great service not only to our students but to the community as a whole.”
Combining the theoretical and practical aspects of robot design and deployment, the course not only trains students to operate these tools, but also to design the systems themselves, including microcontrollers, sensors and artificial intelligence. A full suite of equipment is required to adequately train students in this range of technologies.
The federal funding, pledged by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in October, is intended to fill the robotics lab with state-of-the-art equipment like 3D printing, laser cutting, milling, and computer numerical control workstations. Other workstations run Robot Operating Systems (ROS) and ROS Visualization as well as cobots from FANUC, the world’s largest manufacturer of industrial robots.
“Getting gear into students’ hands is extremely important,” Kulakovich said. “Being able to get a job done before you’re hired is a necessary part of becoming an asset to any company, so we’re trying to add a level of experience that’s really unattainable for the general public. Giving the students access to a wide range of FANUC devices will later open all sorts of doors for them in terms of programming, maintenance or even from the operator’s point of view.”
“We’re aiming for a unified approach to the operational and theoretical parts of robots and bringing them together into one application, and there’s a huge need for this over the next 20 to 30 years,” Birx said. “It is becoming increasingly clear that robotics will be crucial in various applications to do something in both the technical and non-tech worlds.”
Construction and outfitting of the new robotics lab began in October, and the lab is expected to be fully completed by fall 2023.
The need for a new workforce
FANUC forecasts there will be a robotics workforce shortage of 1 million by 2027 due to a lack of required skills, with New Hampshire alone reporting 200 robotics job vacancies and 4,000 in New England in recent months. The need is here, but creating these novel capabilities is a work in progress.
“If we were to do a job search now, we would find 100 robotics jobs within a 200-kilometer radius,” says Kulakovich. “The idea of a shortfall is already making itself felt. IoT, physical computing and robotics are becoming an increasingly important part of people’s lives, and we need the next-generation workforce capable of navigating this space.”
An example in New Hampshire is the increasing study of artificial organs in the southern part of the state, where researchers at the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI) work to create fully functional replacement organs using 3D printing and robotics. While the project has the biological know-how, PSU hopes to provide technical robotics and engineering skills.
“There’s a complete shortage of labor in the US, so there’s a real movement to use robotics in all kinds of applications that have never been done before,” Birx said. “One of the reasons we set up this course is because of the program that is working to build replacement organs. We wanted to be involved in providing the technical know-how to actually build these very sophisticated robotic processes.”
“You have people with the biological background to make these organs,” Reichenthal said. “But they need someone to provide the machinery and skills to actually make it, and for me that’s exactly what excites me about this program.”
“For me, robotics is the integration of software and hardware,” he said. “I love the idea of making things and I love the concept of taking different systems and integrating them, be it single purpose or multiple purposes, and create something useful. In my opinion, robotics is the future of many industries.”
The need for a new breed of workforce will continue to grow as robotics and automated solutions are integrated into more and more industries. With this in mind, PSU’s program is likely just the first of many, as sectors around the world are looking for people who not only have the ability to work with these tools, but also understand how they work and have the ability have to speed up these devices for future iterations.