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New robotics program to train local workers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A national robotics firm is partnering with the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing in South Charleston to offer a new training program it says will fill a key need in the local manufacturing economy.

Detroit-based FANUC Robotics, the world's largest robotics manufacturer, announced at a press conference Tuesday it is partnering with RCBI's Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center on a new Certified Education Robot Training (CERT) Program at the school.

The program will give local students hands-on training to learn how to operate and program FANUC robots, which are used in a wide variety of manufacturing settings, including food packaging, pharmaceutical and automobile applications.

Paul Aiello, FANUC's regional manager of education, said his company was on track to install 15,000 new robotic machines in manufacturing plants across the country this year.

But while companies are investing in the technology, he said employers are hard-pressed to find knowledgeable workers to handle it.

"The perception is that manufacturing is a dirty profession -- it's menial, repetitive tasks -- but we have robots to do that," he said. "Now we need technicians and operators and engineers to run that equipment."

The company's robotics training program is designed to fill that need.

"Schools are now teaching on the latest products that we're introducing to manufacturers to give those students the edge so that they come out of a facility like RCBI with the skills sets that manufacturers are looking for today," Aiello said.

RCBI Director Charlotte Weber said robotics and automation have helped make U.S. companies more efficient and more competitive in the global economy.

She said the key is to now make sure there are enough trained workers to operate and maintain all of this new automation.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said local employers fear there is a skills gap in the field.

"When you talk to employers out there, there's a sense of concern in their voice, because they feel they have jobs but don't have the workforce to fill them," Capito said.

Executives from Gestamp in South Charleston and Toyota Manufacturing in Buffalo vouched for the need to have certified robotics technicians in the region.

Toyota engineering manager Curtis Martin said the dozens of robots used at the Buffalo plant are critical to the safety, efficiency and flexibility of Toyota's manufacturing process.

"Our team members not only need to maintain these robots, but they need to have the skills to make changes to them as part of our continuing improvement processes," Martin said.

Gestamp engineering manager Mike Anderson said the South Charleston stamping plant currently has 26 robots in operation, and the company is in the process of purchasing eight more.

He said having well-educated workers that can reprogram and retool those robots are essential for the company's operations.

"Our maintenance technicians have basically traded in their toolboxes for laptops," Anderson said.

Aiello said FANUC views the program as a three-legged tool that ties together education, manufacturers and equipment suppliers together to train workers on the latest technologies.

He said certified robotics engineers could earn a starting salary the mid-$50,000 a year range. The program at RCBI will not only allow current students to become certified on the equipment, but allow employers to send their workers in for continuing education and training.

He said the increased education would help strengthen the state's manufacturing economy for years to come.

"Manufacturing in this country is not dead," Aiello said. "It's evolving and it's really on a great path ahead."

Contact writer Jared Hunt at business@dailymail.com or 304-348-4836.

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