Students in the robotics lab at Fresno City College work in programming an industrial robot, one of two dozen industrial robots at the college. Photo by David Castellon

published on February 14, 2020 - 12:51 PM
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James Rooney has a robot.

Not the sort made famous in science fiction books or the kind out to conquer humanity in apocalyptic movies.

His robot is a single mechanical arm, the sort you might find in a factory assembling parts or moving goods on or off conveyor belts or — with the right attachments — welding parts coming down an assembly line.

The robot actually isn’t his, but rather the property of West Hills College in Lemoore, where Rooney, an instructor of industrial automation, uses it to give students in the school’s industrial automation program hands-on experience programming and working with robots.

It’s not the sort of classwork many people might expect to have available to them at a community college in the Central Valley.

But the truth is, instruction on working with and maintaining industrial robots is a growing venture in high schools and community colleges here, with a handful using working robots of the sort used in factories, among them the 24 at Fresno City College, making it the largest hands-on industrial robotics program on the West Coast, and one of the largest in the country.

“What we teach the students is how to understand mechanically how the robots work, but then they learn how to operate the robots. For example, we have a lot of food processing in the Valley. So we teach the students how to get the robot arm to pick up an object and move it,” said Julie Lynes, an applied technology counselor for Fresno City College.

That training is important not only to the students learning a new and better-paying skillset, but also to the operators of factories across the Valley, “because the manufacturing industry and many others — for example, distribution centers — are using industrial robots,” Lynes said.

Other manufacturing experts agree, noting that the rise in robots in local factories includes the need to be more competitive in speed and efficiency, save costs for human labor and the cost of at least some robot systems coming down in recent years.

While it could be argued that robots are taking away some jobs, jobs are being created to program and do other tasks related to robots, Lynes said, adding that at the same time, “We still need human involvement.”

Becky Barabe, dean of applied technology at Fresno City College, said her department’s expansion of robotics training is the result of factories here increasing their use of robots in recent years.

Indeed, Rodney Wilson, Visalia branch manager for

Fresno-based Electric Motor Shop, which among other tasks is a distributor of industrial robots, said a couple of years ago he read California manufacturers’ use of robots would increase 400% over the next five to seven years, and at least here in the Valley, they seem on track to do this.

“Prior to five years ago, you were seeing miscellaneous robots here and there in the

Valley, and in 2018 and even earlier you saw it really escalate here in the Valley with our industrial manufacturing and food processing,” said Wilson, adding that the increased demand has run into a labor shortage, made worse by the fact that so few people have the specialized skills to program robots.

These aren’t skills a lot of employers are set up to teach, which is why local high schools and colleges offering some robotics training — though most don’t have actual industrial robots to work with — are so important,” he said.
“We wanted to be on the cusp of being able to train [workers] before they’re coming into the industrial settings, so our students would be ready for that industry wave … that’s here and coming,” Barabe said.

“I think there is going to be a huge transition from line workers to operators that are utilizing robotics and network systems to process their products.

“As they’re buying this equipment they need to be retraining their people,” or hiring new ones, though many of those hires also need formal training, she said.

“It is something anyone can do, but if you have [experience] in coding, that’s a good thing.”

“We don’t do a good job of marketing our program, which is a college-wide problem,” Lynes said, adding that most of the students who have entered Fresno City’s program related to robotics started out training in electronics but switched over after learning about the other program.

That’s changing somewhat, she said, as “We are starting to see industry send over their current employees [for retraining].”

“The class holds 24, and we’ve been running on our second year, and it’s been packed,” Lynes said.

“We have an introductory training course, and from there you can go into more advanced robotics, on the electrical side as well on the welding side,” Barabe, added.

Depending on the specific training track students follow, they could be trained in about a dozen industrial jobs related to robots.

Robots have been a part of industry for about the past five decades, most prominently in the auto industry assembling cars, but new robots can be much smaller and do smaller, more tedious tasks from delicate assembly work to picking out fruit in a packing house and scanning it for rot or damage, said Christopher Klein, general manager of Klein Educational Systems in Davis, California, which provides industrial training systems and related hardware to schools and businesses, which includes providing and installing

industrial robots at Fresno City College.

“You can get a basic, simple robot for 50-60 grand,” he said.

The robots at Fresno City generally cost about $80,000, though part of the uniqueness of robot education there is the variety of skillsets groups of the robots can perform, from simple stacking to assembly to welding.

They mostly have been purchased with state and federal grant dollars.

“I know there’s not another community college — and I believe any four-year college — in California that has a lab as big as ours that has 24 robots,” Lynes said. “I hear about them having two or three, but I’m not an expert.”

Fresno City isn’t the only Valley College with working robots, as West Hills in Lemoore and Clovis Community College each have one.

Those two community colleges, along with Fresno City, are part of a program under the office of the Chancellor of California Community Colleges whereby students can earn associates of science degrees in industrial automation and go directly into industrial automation programs at Fresno State or Bakersfield College, and be halfway to Bachelor of Science degrees, though the A.S. degree alone could put many graduates in line for good-paying jobs, the experts said.

Colleges and some Valley high schools without industrial robots are working to prepare students for these fields, whether its offering coding or raw classroom work in robotics and automation, to having components used in robotics available.

“We do mechtronic-based [classwork] that have them integrated into their systems, so they are computer like, but they’re not like full-on robots,” said Jamon Peariso, director of college and career readiness for Visalia Unified School District.

He said some of his high schools have equipment to train students on aspects of robotics, though a goal of the district is to get a full robot for its new high school planned to be built in the future.

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