Around Kirkwood

Mechatronics Classes Build Career Skills

By April 1, 2008January 21st, 2019No Comments

Training uses combinations of technologies to boost area jobs, commerce

When someone mentions Iowa, manufacturing usually isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.

In reality, however, the state ranks No. 8 in the country in terms of gross state product contributed from industry, according to Phil Thomas, dean of the Industrial Technologies department at Kirkwood Community College.

Any thoughts that there’s no future in area manufacturing couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Here in the technology corridor between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, there is a lot of manufacturing, especially advanced manufacturing,” Thomas says. “It’s very prevalent in our area.

“Manufacturing in our area is pretty diverse and that’s always a good thing. The more diversity, the better. And, because we have that diversity, various business sectors are going to be doing well, and that helps the overall economy.”

That translates into a healthy job market for highly trained and skilled workers. Because Kirkwood in on the leading edge in technology education, graduates of the college’s Industrial Maintenance & HVAC Technology program are in high demand by employers in the area, says Dennis Owen, an instructor in the program.

“We have a strong industrial base in the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City area and most of our graduates elect to stay in Iowa. There’s plenty of jobs right here in the Midwest,” Owen said.

One reason why graduates of the Kirkwood program are so in demand is the broad training they receive. A leading element of that is Mechatronics, in which Owen also is the lead instructor.

Essentially, Mechatronics is a blend of mechanics and electronics. It involves a combination of precision engineering, control theory, computer science and other technologies, resulting in improved manufacturing processes and products.

Kirkwood’s Mechatronics system “replicates systems that really exist in industry,” Owen notes. “Students get to learn on real equipment.”

A recent contribution from General Mills allowed Kirkwood to modify the Mechatronics trainer to make it even more versatile: The self-contained system can duplicate the two major industry systems: Allen-Bradley, which is used by many major Cedar Rapids-Iowa City corridor manufacturers, and Siemens. Thus, Kirkwood students receive the most up-do-date, practical training possible.

Owen explains that Mechatronics is “an industry standard” that uses programmable logic controllers (PLCs). Lab exercises utilize Kirkwood’s $150,000 Mechatronics trainer, which applies PLCs, motion control, robotics and fluid power technologies.

Mechatronics can be applied to everything from disk drives to jetfighters. A relatively simple example is a clothes dryer with a sensor that allows the machine to measure the moisture level of fabrics. The machine turns off when the moisture level lowers to a specified level; i.e., when the fabrics are dry. Operating performance is improved and energy use is lowered.

“A PLC will control just about any process,” Owen says. “It’s the brains behind automation.”

When Kirkwood purchased its Mechatronics trainer a few months ago, sources were not widely available in the United States and its systems, while excellent, were not commonly used here, according to Owen.

“We wanted students to learn on equipment that is indicative of what’s here,” he says. “The support from General Mills allows us to convert to a system that’s very common here. And, we can convert back and forth. It gives us a lot more flexibility.

“We can serve a broader group of people. We can use one system one day and the other system another day. It greatly enhances the educational value.”

Owen notes that graduates of the Kirkwood program can apply their skills to a wide range of fields, including electrician, electrical wiring, industrial plant maintenance, building maintenance, refrigeration, and heating and air-conditioning services.

“The job market is very strong and growing,” he says. “Because (the field) is service-oriented, fluctuations in the economy don’t affect these areas as much as some others. People who hire our graduates need to have their equipment up and running.”

Owen says a graduate of the Kirkwood program can look at earning anywhere from $34,000 up to $60,000 to start.

“A lot of manufacturers pay in the mid-$20-an-hour range, with very little work experience, and the job usually comes with very good benefits,” he adds.

Prospective companies include General Mills, with whom Kirkwood has a close relationship, as well as ADM, PMX, Rockwell Collins, and union trades like IBEW and Pipefitters.

Thomas says, “When you have companies like General Mills, Rockwell, Quaker Oats and new companies like Acciona Wind Power, based in West Branch, they bring a whole new industry sector to this area. It really requires that students be well-versed in a wide variety of technologies.

“Currently, the Mechatronic systems are offered through Kirkwood’s credit side through the (Industrial Maintenance & HVAC) program, but in addition to that, we’re also offering some certification in Mechatronics through Continuing Education. It helps us address the short-term training needs … (Mechatronic) skills are so important to address advanced manufacturing in our area.”

Owen describes Mechatronics as “almost a must” for anyone interested in a career in industrial maintenance, a job market that he predicts will only expand for workers.

“Because a lot of baby boomers are retiring, the skilled labor force is depleting. The job market will be quite strong,” he says.

And, thanks in part to the quality of training Kirkwood offers, he says, “People from out of state are contacting us, wanting our students.”