Baxter Makes Major Investment at McDowell Tech

The new robotic equipment will be dedicated on Tuesday, March 19, 2019 during a meeting of the McDowell Workforce Pipeline Committee at the Universal Advanced Manufacturing Center, located at 634 College Drive in Marion. The dedication will begin at 12:15, with the official ribbon cutting taking place around 12:45. The FANUC robot has been programmed by students in the current Industrial Systems program to do the ribbon “cutting,” demonstrating the versatility of robotic machines in the simplest of ways.

“With this major gift to the College, Baxter has made a commitment to the future of high-tech training in McDowell County,” said Dr. John Gossett, President of McDowell Technical Community College. “This piece of equipment also represents Baxter’s commitment to the partnership between McDowell Tech and local business and industry leaders to meet local workforce training needs, both for employers and employees.”

“We are grateful for their donation,” said Stacy Buff, who is currently leading the Workforce Pipeline Committee and is Dean of Continuing Education at McDowell Tech. While the college had a much smaller, less robust robot before this donation,” he said, “This newer, more enhanced robot opens up a whole new level of training. We are excited about the opportunities it will give current and future students. This is the same type of robot they will use in the workplace when they graduate.”

In fact, the new FANUC robot was one of a pair of robots shipped to Baxter’s North Cove facility last fall. The other robot has already been installed as part of a fleet of robots currently operating at the plant, which produces intravenous solutions (IV’s) and similar medical solutions products. Globally, Baxter is estimated to have a 30% market share in IV Solutions production worldwide, with annual sales in 2018 reaching $11.1 billion, according to the company website.

What makes Baxter’s gift even more unique is that they used students in McDowell Tech’s Maintenance Apprenticeship Program, who also work at Baxter North Cove, to design, install, setup and program the new equipment, reinforcing the future value of the Apprenticeship program to their company. Adam Aldridge is the company liaison for Baxter and was instrumental in arranging the donation by Baxter.

“Baxter really is a company that is committed to their own employees,” said Eddie Shuford, Director of the Universal Advanced Manufacturing Center. “They grow their own, if you will. Employees who show promise and interest and have a Gold Career Readiness Certificate (CRC) may become part of their production technician program, which is a feeder for supervisory positions and the apprenticeship positions. They invest in those apprentices by enrolling them at McDowell Tech and paying for their education.”

“Even more important, talks are in the works for the College to take over a bigger share of the local plant’s overall training in the near future,” said Shuford. “In like turn, as we expand our program, we have hired three of their retired mechanics and one of their engineers as new instructors at McDowell Tech. They are highly-trained and super at what they do, and they will assist us with training for all of our students, not just the ones who come from Baxter.”

In fact, Baxter is just one of several companies that has an apprenticeship program with McDowell Tech, but each of their students will benefit from Baxter’s donation. Other local companies with apprenticeship programs include Columbia Forest Products, Continental, Auria Solutions and ABB. However, according to Robertson and Shuford, Baxter has the lion’s share of McDowell Tech students currently enrolled in an apprenticeship program.

While most of the current students in an apprenticeship program are males, the program is open to all genders and there has been a female student recently enrolled in one of the programs. Oddly enough, high school students are increasingly realizing the financial advantage of a career in Mechatronics or Applied Engineering, how easy it is to get a job in the field and the upward mobility it can provide. “The possibilities are unlimited,” said Robertson.

Efforts are underway to expand recruitment efforts with local public schools, and groups of students will be touring McDowell Tech in coming months. The new McDowell Academy of Innovation, the county’s newest Early College program, has expressed an interest in partnering with the College to offer Mechatronics and Applied Engineering degrees for their students.

As a result of increasing interest in these programs by recent high school graduates, the average age of students in Industrial Systems, a Mechatronics-related degree that is being phased out at McDowell Tech, is in the early 20’s, although all ages are welcome to enroll. 

Baxter’s donation comes at a time when McDowell Tech is transitioning from the older Industrial Systems program to newer programs in Mechatronics and Applied Engineering that more closely match the technology needs of local industry.

“Mechatronics, our primary program, is a sort of marriage between technology and machines. It focuses on programming machines, using PLCs—Programmable Logic Controllers, to automate and expedite processes needed to complete some type of industrial task. That could be anything from teaching a robot to stack a pallet with boxes loaded with products ready for shipping, to automating how another machine cuts or molds steel and plastics,” said Steve Robertson, Mechatronics, Industrial Systems and Electrical/Electronics Instructor at McDowell Tech.

“Mechatronics is definitely a multi-disciplinary program,” Robertson added. “Students in this program take classes in Machining, Electronics and similar areas. When a student graduates, we want them to be able to walk into any industry, set up a new robot, program it to automate whatever task that company needs at the time and keep that robot or machine running smoothly throughout the manufacturing or operations process.”

Mechatronics is one of the most in-demand degrees locally and nationwide. According to Robertson, graduates have unlimited career and salary potential, depending on their level of experience, education, certifications and specialties. “Obviously salaries vary from area to area, depending on cost of living and so forth,” he said. “In McDowell County, which has a very low cost of living, students with no experience can move straight from a two-year college associate degree into a job paying $20-22 per hour, based on feedback we’ve heard from students and employers. That equates to a yearly salary in the low-to-mid 40’s. With a few years of experience, they might make $28-30 per hour or more—high 50’s to low 60’s on an annual basis.”

Some Mechatronics and Applied Engineering students choose to go on for additional education and training to become mechanical engineers, where the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates median salaries to be around $86,000 per year.

Robertson gushes about how proud he is of students in his program and how excited he is about raising the bar on robotics training at McDowell Tech. “I told my students, mostly second-year students, where I wanted the FANUC robot to be set up, and then I turned them loose. They already had most of the basic training in the program, and I was sure they were capable of doing the work, and they proved me right. They set up the air intake lines that pressurize the robot, did the electrical work, welded and bolted—secured—the base of the robot to the floor, ordered all the extra hardware and fencing that forms the cage around the robot, and installed everything all by themselves.”

Jonathan Braswell headed up the student team for his class. He is a maintenance mechanic at Baxter, and Baxter allowed him and his fellow Baxter employees to use paid company time to complete the project. Robertson also allowed the students to use some classroom lab hours to get everything up going. Braswell and the other students will be recognized on Tuesday.

When everything was properly installed, Braswell and his team setup, initialized and programmed the robot to do some basic tasks, including the simple ribbon cutting, as it is being called. Technically, the “cutting” will not use scissors, but instead will break a ribbon that has been magnetized in the center, so that a series of pictures can be taken quickly without unrolling and setting up a new ribbon for each picture.

“It’s all high tech,” said Gossett. “McDowell Tech is changing to meet our ever-changing workforce needs and we are super excited to have Baxter partner with us in this effort. We hope others will follow their lead as we move forward.”

The public is invited to attend the dedication on Tuesday at Universal Advanced Manufacturing Center.