VU receives Caterpillar Foundation grant for collaborative robots

VU receives Caterpillar Foundation grant for collaborative robots

Tom Schott

March 22, 2021

LAFAYETTE, Ind. - There is lots of buzz and excitement around collaborative robots, also known as cobots, a rising technology utilized by manufacturing, electronics, logistics, and other industries.

Thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Caterpillar Foundation, the Vincennes University Advanced Internship in Manufacturing (AIM) program plans to upgrade equipment in its laboratories in Lafayette, exposing VU industrial automation maintenance students to leading-edge technologies, including cobots, and develop them into leaders in Industry 4.0 or advanced smart manufacturing. 

Industry 4.0 integrates cutting-edge smart technologies with traditional manufacturing and industrial platforms. Cobots work alongside humans and can increase safety and production in the workplace.

There is tremendous demand for automation technicians who troubleshoot, maintain, and repair intricate manufacturing systems. Eighty-six percent of participants in the 2019 Indiana Manufacturing Survey reported a serious to a moderate shortage of skilled trade employees. 

According to AIM Program Site Coordinator Tom Schott, there is a demand for more than 500 maintenance technicians over the next five years in Tippecanoe County and surrounding counties due to retiring individuals. Additionally, new manufacturers entering the region are creating an even higher demand for skilled trades technicians.

The AIM program is helping to engage and boost the pipeline necessary to meet the need.

The mission of the Caterpillar Foundation is to build thriving communities by investing in the skills people need to join the modern workforce, and the natural and vital infrastructure they rely upon.

“We are proud to partner with Vincennes University to help build a diverse pipeline of candidates for career and technical programs,” said Caterpillar Foundation President Asha Varghese. “As part of our focus on building the workforce of the 21st century, we recognize this work is critical to addressing the manufacturing skills gap.”

The AIM program is an earn-and-learn program where students are in class two days a week at the state-of-the-art Subaru Technical Training Center in Lafayette and work three days a week as industrial automation technicians at one of 14 manufacturers in the Lafayette area. After completing a two-year associate degree in Manufacturing Automation Technology, graduates will enter the industrial automation maintenance career field where an income of more than $75,000 per year is easily achievable.

“Our equipment upgrades present better professional opportunities for our graduates,” Schott said. “As our graduates go out into their various workplaces and when their manufacturing engineering department incorporates its first cobot on the shop floor, our graduates can step up and say, "We learned about cobots at Vincennes University and I’d like to be involved in that project.”

The resources provided by the grant will help students gain an edge in both their pursuit of a successful career and higher education.

Andrew Culbreath

“The Caterpillar Foundation grant is outstanding and it is a big deal,” VU AIM student Andrew Culbreath of Cayuga, Indiana said. “Using up-to-date equipment is a big thing especially in the industry now because if you are not in the know as to what’s coming next you are behind. In this industry, the more you know and the more you are exposed to, the more apt of an associate you are. There’s a gigantic advantage just being exposed to this technology.”

VU alumnus Vieren Thomas, a graduate of the first AIM class in 2016, is well acquainted with cobots and automation. The New Jersey native has worked for Tesla, Volvo, and is currently a lead maintenance technician for electric vehicle manufacturer Rivian Automotive in Normal, Illinois.

Thomas praises the AIM program for being relevant to those planning to work or those working in the industrial automation maintenance field or other industries.

Vieren Thomas“Cobots are a helping hand," Thomas said. "A cobot can do redundant and mundane things. The use of cobots is growing in the medical field and the aviation field. In the automotive industry, it is becoming big. Cobots are a great addition to the AIM program. Cobots are part of the future. Everything is tech, tech, tech-heavy right now. Until a robot is fixing a robot and as long as you understand a robot, know how to fix a robot, and understand automation, you will always have a place to be.”

Introducing smart manufacturing and its wow factor is critical to inspiring the next generations of manufacturers, according to Schott.

Additionally, the Caterpillar Foundation’s support will enable the AIM program to recruit high school students in the greater Lafayette area, Tippecanoe County, and surrounding counties to help build a strong future in manufacturing by introducing them to the industry through interactive experiences with portable smart technology cobots, conveyors, and other technical components.

"We are thankful and grateful for the support of the Caterpillar Foundation and its investment in workforce readiness," Schott said. "With this grant support, we will be able to educate and show the excitement of careers in manufacturing as well as attract and develop highly-skilled technicians to help create a 21st-century workforce in a world of rapidly changing technology."