Walton Family Foundation funding opens door for high school seniors at new robotics training academy

by Nancy Peevy ([email protected]) 2,067 views 

Steve Clark, president and CEO of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, stands with a FANUC robot inside the Northwest Arkansas Regional Robotic Training Center in downtown Fayetteville. The chamber launched the training center in June.

A collaboration between NorthWest Arkansas Community College (NWACC) in Bentonville and the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce is offering access to cutting-edge robotic training during the upcoming school year.

High school seniors from throughout the region will be trained at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Robotic Training Center (RRTC) in downtown Fayetteville. Eight seniors, with two additional alternates, will be nominated from each of the 15 public school districts in Benton and Washington counties to participate in the program, called Northwest Arkansas Regional Robotics Training Academy.

The Walton Family Foundation is supporting the program with a six-figure grant. The donation will cover the $1,995 tuition fee per student. After completion, each of the 120 seniors will receive a training certificate at their high school graduation or upon earning their high school equivalency diploma (GED), making them employable as a robotics technician. Technicians typically earn a salary between $38,000 and $42,000.

“The impact of this program on the capabilities of our Northwest Arkansas workforce is difficult to measure except to say that by June 2020, Northwest Arkansas will have 120 skilled, certified robot technicians under the age of 19 available and prepared to lead Northwest Arkansas businesses and manufacturers into the fourth industrial revolution,” said Steve Clark, president and CEO of the Fayetteville chamber. “I am not aware of any other region in the country that can make that boast.”

School districts are asked that one-third of the students they nominate be female. They are also encouraged to choose students interested in technical and career education.

NWACC and the Fayetteville chamber opened the RRTC in June to offer training to operators, technicians, engineers or programmers on FANUC robots. The chamber received a $336,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to pay for the purchase of the five training robots.

FANUC, which stands for Fuji Automatic Numerical Control, was founded in 1958 in Japan and is one of the largest makers of industrial robots in the world. The company “contributes to the manufacturing industry in Japan and overseas by promoting automation and efficiency in manufacturing,” according to the company’s website. Its U.S. headquarters is in Rochester Hills, Mich.

High school seniors will complete their 32-hour training course in Fayetteville during one week. Instructors will teach 12 students per class. Training will begin in September and end in March 2020.

Registration is available through NWACC. The college also issues the ‘FANUC Certified Robot Operator – 1’ certification once students complete the course and pass the final exam. No college credit is given for the course. The curriculum is the same one taught at FANUC’s headquarters and is offered through other community colleges in Illinois and Michigan. The Fayetteville location is the only one that offers it in the one-week time frame.

In addition to high school seniors, Tim Cornelius, NWACC vice president of career and workforce education, said he thinks three types of students will be interested in the course: students out of high school who want the training as part of their education; career changers who wish to learn a new skill; and employees from companies who bought a FANUC robot and need training.

More than 4,000 FANUC robots are in operation within a 250-mile radius of Fayetteville. Within a 500-mile radius of Little Rock, there are 20,000 commercial robots, Clark said.

“Robots aren’t coming. They are here now,” Cornelius said. “Walmart is using robots, and we felt like having this center keeps us at the forefront of offering students at any age, or career changers of any age, the ability to gain an extra skill. It’s valuable in today’s workforce.”

One of the FANUC robots at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Robotic Training Center in downtown Fayetteville.

Robots work in virtually every industry and application including assembly, painting, dispensing and welding, and in banking to count money. Pinnacle Foods, Multi-Craft Contractors Inc. and Tyson Foods all use them to do repetitive jobs, Clark said.

Clark also noted the robotics innovation practiced recently at Arkansas Oral & Facial Surgery Center in Fayetteville, which was the first in Arkansas to insert a dental implant using a robot. Dr. Scotty Bolding, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon and one of three partners at the center, inserted the implant April 2 using dental robot Yomi — the only one approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for dental surgery. The center is one of 25 globally with the robot, which was developed by Miami-based Neocis Inc.

“Robots can be used in any place you can automate a function,” Clark said. “What you get with robots is accuracy, speed and consistency. They can pick up something off a conveyor belt or shelf, place things on conveyor belts, put things in a box or a package and then palletize and stack a series of things,” Clark said.

Because the robot includes a camera and can “see,” Clark gave the example of how a pharmacy could use it to fill prescriptions. The robot can be programmed to sort different colored pills, count them into a jar, put the lid on and put it back the shelf.

“It can do that in a matter of seconds, and it will do that all day, every day for 24 hours a day without a bathroom break, without a vacation, without missing time for the flu,” he said. “What we are providing for industry, business, retail, healthcare and services is the ability to take a process and automate it for greater efficiency, accuracy and cost reduction.”

Four students have graduated from the RRTC since it opened in June. Two paid their tuition, and Saint Jean Industries in Heber Springs paid for two of its employees. Saint Jean makes aluminum parts for engines, chassis and wheels in the automotive, aeronautics and industrial production equipment fields.

“Saint Jean represents, in the form of jobs, new skilled jobs,” Clark said. “That’s the type of industry Arkansas has recruited and can continue to recruit because of the presence of a certified robotics training center. Not in Detroit or another part of the world, but here in Arkansas. Saint Jean knows it can grow in Arkansas because it knows it can get skilled workers without ever having to put someone on an airplane for training and that the skills training is certified and is completed in one week.”

Arkansas’ Office of Skills Development assists employers with the cost of the training through a workforce training grant program that reimburses up to 75% of the cost for workforce skills training.

“The program is open to anyone ready to step up, work hard and not just prepare for the future, but help build the future,” Clark said. “Give me a week, and I’ll change your life. Once you get this skill, it’s in your hip pocket wherever you go.”

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