Developing Automation Technologists for Hard-to-Fill Jobs Across High-Tech Ecosystems

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"By using Excel and LabVIEW applications, students can visualize mathematics and can gain confidence in their quantitative skills essential for success in the curriculum. Figure 1 shows an example of these applications."

- Sam Samanta, Finger Lakes Community College

The Challenge:
Training students for hard to fill technical jobs across the whole spectrum of high tech industries, while helping them overcome the mathematics and/or physics barrier.

The Solution:
Developing an innovative curriculum including National Instruments software and hardware to enable learning of skills crucial for designing, testing, manufacturing and quality control through a hands-on approach that covers topics such as a data acquisition, motion control and machine vision using LabVIEW and other hardware/software tools.

Author(s):
Sam Samanta - Finger Lakes Community College

Introduction

Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) is situated at the heart of the Finger Lakes region in Canandaigua, NY. The college is home to more than 50 areas of studies. The Engineering Technology education model developed at FLCC could help accelerate workforce training for 100,000 hard-to-fill technical jobs, and prepare the workforce for disruptive innovations in the Internet of Things era.
There are several urgent high-tech workforce challenges. All over the country, 500000 technical jobs are going unfilled, while millions are underemployed. Most of the large high-tech industries are well-served by conventional STEM programs, however, the small and medium enterprises often face difficulties when trying to find the right employee, which makes these positions hard-to-fill jobs. The difficulties arise because these businesses cannot afford extensive in-house training and their needs are too diverse to be addressed by any given academic institution.
For the potential candidates for those jobs, mathematics and physics continue to be a stumbling block. Nationwide, it is estimated that 50% of the engineering technology students drop out within the first year due to the difficulties experienced in those courses. As for those that do remain in the career, they must acquire adaptable skills, that would make them able to meet the specific requirements demanded by the small and medium businesses, but most educational institutions cannot afford to address them with dedicated degree programs.

Robust Educational Pathways for manufacturing at all scales.  

The AAS Instrumentation and Control Technologies program, an innovative hands-on curriculum was developed at Finger Lakes Community College, for teaching fundamental concepts in automation of data acquisition, motion control, machine vision, robotics, process control and quality monitoring, to prepare the students for high tech employment across the whole spectrum of industries. In collaboration with three dozen high tech businesses near Rochester, NY, and National Instruments, a framework has been developed for designing, testing, manufacturing and quality control across a broad spectrum of high-tech industries. Over the course of a program, an effort has been made so that a student can start a co-op, typically with six out of nine high-end adaptable skills, and over the duration of the co-op, the company is able to assess if the person has the potential to learn the remaining job specific skills to make them the ideal candidate they were looking for.

For this program, teaching the fundamentals continues to be crucial. The fundamentals increase effectiveness in the current and emerging industries. Without the deeper understanding of the fundamentals the world of now and the future ends up being intimidating barrage of unrelated phenomena and events, reducing one’s ability to comprehend the diversity of existence and severely limits one’s creativity. However, the program takes a different approach towards teaching fundamentals, and it uses software tools to approach higher mathematics including numerical calculus.

Using Excel and LabVIEW applications, students can visualize mathematics and can gain confidence in their quantitative skills essential for success in the curriculum. Figure 1 shows an example of these applications. Students start as users of these applications and by the end of the semester, they learn to produce new ones. Technologies such as LabVIEW Data Acquisition and Machine Vision are used in introductory Applied Physics courses to inspire students invest more effort in learning quantitative methods which would improve their abilities to use advanced technologies with confidence. The use of LabVIEW applications can also help increase the success of students in “gate-keeper” courses.

National Instruments’ hardware and software platform is used, along with other techniques, to teach valuable skills such as troubleshooting through hands-on learning activities and projects. Multisim, myDAQ and NI ELVIS are used in a Digital Electronics Course. The myDAQ is a portable, versatile device used in several courses such as Analog Electronics, DATA Acquisition, Automation Control and College Physics II. Topics such as motion control and machine vision are studied in the Automation Control II course, in which the students also learn to program FPGAs using the LabVIEW FPGA module and NI myRIO. Figure 2 shows an example of a PID control of Light Intensity application, in which NI ELVIS II+ is used to create the control system’s inputs and outputs, and the LabVIEW Control Design and Simulation module is used so that students can focus on adjusting the parameters of the controller. Figure 3 shows the interface of a machine vision application developed using LabVIEW.

Through collaboration with local businesses, a co-op requirement was created, so students can learn job-specific skills and get a chance to prove themselves to their employers. These co-op opportunities are matched with the student’s experience and interests.  Because of those collaborations, over 90% of the students have been placed in jobs across a wide spectrum of industries. From the businesses’ viewpoint, it is less expensive to hire a local student than to try to recruit an adaptable high-tech employee though nationwide search, while having the student will free up engineers or scientists to focus on more complex problems. The co-ops are critical to student success, as they show them how the curriculum relates to work and motivates them to focus on the completion of the program. As an additional benefit for the students enrolled in the program, the courses have been scheduled after 4 pm during weekdays, and two courses have been moved to Saturdays, so that students who cannot afford to quit a day-time job, or those who want to start a job earlier are able to remain in the program.

The high-tech revenue in a region or community supports non-technical industries, such as housing, healthcare, food, education and entertainment. A $40000 salary (per year) could translate into a $200000 economic benefit per year, considering that the estimated revenue attributable to a technologist is about five times the salary. The technical program is still small, as it has graduated average of 9 students a year over the past five cohorts, however, its cumulative effect could reach $25 million by the time the fifth cohort completes a full-year of regular income after graduation. The quantitative model used to determine the economic impact considers the minimum and maximum income of the graduates. The cumulative impact scales as the square of the number of years (even if the number of graduates were not to increase). If similar programs are developed in close collaboration with regional high-tech ecosystems, 200000 individuals could be placed in hard-to-fill positions across the nation, and the economic benefit could reach $40 billion per year. In summary, programs like this could help leverage hundreds of millions of dollars worth of resources invested in curricular development over the past decade, across the country, and help address current gaps in technical workforce and prepare workforce of the future necessary for success of industrial ecosystems developed through National Network for Manufacturing Innovation Institutes (NNMIS).

Conclusion

Community colleges are accessible to students where they live and provide requisite support for the underprepared – individualized attention that students may not get at large educational institutions. The AAS Instrumentation and Control Technologies program at FLCC has helped graduate students with an associate degree that can help address urgent workforce challenges. Through the curriculum, students learn crucial skills for innovations across the high-tech ecosystem, which makes them versatile professionals. Also, the requirement of co-op is a key ingredient that may become pivotal in filling a large fraction of hard-to-fill jobs, which is fundamental when tackling the nation’s widespread unemployment and underemployment, while it helps many smaller businesses remain competitive. The use of software and hardware tools, such as LabVIEW, Multisim, myDAQ, NI ELVIS II, and myRIO in the fundamentals courses helps students visualize and internalize mathematics, which increases student retention.

Author Information:
Sam Samanta
Finger Lakes Community College
sam.samanta@flcc.edu

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