Bridging a Gap in Aerospace Workflow

Space scientists work toward new community college program to train workers for the high-tech world of advanced manufacturing.

“Metal doesn’t mind if it’s on an airplane, a rocket or a car; it still needs to be fabricated,” says Crumbly, as he works to develop a community college program to educate technicians prepared to handle the work. Photos by Dennis Keim

Huntsville’s Von Braun Center for Science & Innovation has been around for more than a decade, but it’s revving up for one of its biggest projects yet, a groundbreaking collaboration with the Alabama Community College System.

“This state is really working on opening up pathways to the aerospace industry,” says Chris Crumbly, executive director of the VCSI and senior director for space and defense programs at the University of Tennessee Space Institute. “We can create a lot more jobs with what we have planned.”

When Crumbly came to the VCSI in January 2018, he took the helm of an organization that he says had been “dormant” for a few years. Established in 2006, the VCSI brought together universities and industry in a consortium to develop technology for the aerospace industry. That was successful at first, but around 2011, the VCSI board “put things on hold,” he says. In 2017, talk began about a new consortium, and Crumbly — a Teledyne Brown Engineering executive with 25 years experience working for NASA — was hired.

Crumbly estimates that $140 billion to $150 billion comes through Huntsville each year from the federal government. “That’s a lot of opportunity,” he says.

So he got to work, expanding VCSI’s group of members to include not only Alabama’s larger universities — Auburn University, the University of Alabama, Alabama A&M University, the University of South Alabama, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of Alabama in Huntsville and Tuskegee University — but other institutions inside and out of Alabama. In addition, the VCSI Center for Minority Collaboration was developed to reach out to Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

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Along the way, the VCSI landed several projects, but Crumbly believes he’s on the cusp of its biggest project yet.

“I became acquainted with some of the advanced manufacturing work at the community colleges of Alabama and some in Tennessee,” he says. “I started looking at the Alabama pathways training and realized we had been underserving our pipeline in creating folks who can do advanced manufacturing.”

In other words, there was some technical training that could be given through community colleges that would bolster the technology workforce needed in Alabama.

“This is not a research investment,” Crumbly says. “It’s a workforce development investment.”

Chris Crumbly, executive director of the Von Braun Center for Science & Innovation in Huntsville

Crumbly took his idea to Jeff Lynn, vice chancellor of workforce and economic development for the Alabama Community College System, and Jimmy Baker, chancellor of the system, and they bought into it in a bigger way than Crumbly expected.

“I had intended to do a pathfinder with Drake State Community and Technical College, with Calhoun Community College, with Wallace State Community College, some schools I had a little understanding of what they were doing and how they could play in the advanced manufacturing workforce,” Crumbly says. “Jimmy said, ‘Why don’t we take all 24 of our schools at once?’”

So every school in Alabama’s community college system is now a part of the VCSI consortium.

“What we’re doing is we’re really looking at the dramatically changing technology in aerospace,” Lynn says. “The beauty of it is that Alabama, particularly Huntsville and Mobile, is in the center of it.”

VCSI and the Alabama Community College System are looking toward creating a new associate’s degree in what they’re calling systems engineering technology. Students would learn to operate some of the advanced manufacturing equipment that’s becoming so prevalent in industry.

“What we’re hearing from our industries is that we need a two-year degree for technicians,” Lynn says. “That’s the wave of the future.”

Crumbly likens the need to the 1980s, when computer-assisted design (CAD) was becoming prominent.

“We did not have enough engineers trained in CAD to go and do it,” he says. “So the community colleges said, ‘We’re going to create computer-aided draftsmen.’ That’s the model I was following with systems engineering. How can we create something like what we did with the CAD technicians, but do it with these digital engineering concepts? This job doesn’t exist, yet.”

A curriculum is in the works, “based on things that are already taught in the community colleges,” Crumbly says. “A lot of the same coursework would be taken, and then you’d move on to some advanced courses.”

A person with a systems engineering technology degree would be able to do work that would free up engineers for other work, Lynn says. “It would really speed up the technology from the vision of an engineer or a research unit to fruition and getting out there and using it,” he says. “We think there’s a space, a gap, where that is needed. We think this model will catch on and quickly run across the United States and the world, even, when they see the possibilities. We’re somewhat of a pioneer in it right now.”

Being a pioneer isn’t easy, and, in this case, it’s going to take some money, whether that’s from the aerospace industry, the Department of Defense, NASA or other sources.

“I think there are some things we can do in-house without grants, but to really get this going we need money,” Lynn says. “I think it’s very doable. We have some lofty goals, but the model is going to take a significant amount of money from our investors.”

Whatever the mission, engineers can spend more time creating and refining the solution if highly skilled technicians are prepared to meet the fabrication challenges. The Apollo 16 command module, hanging in Huntsville’s Air and Space Museum, is a tribute to design and craftsmanship.

And there is already some interest in this new venture, including U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt’s office helping to identify some appropriate grants for the venture, Crumbly says.

“We’re starting to see some interest from the industry that they would hire these people,” Crumbly says. “We’re trying to create interest in a way that maybe even the industry would put some seed money into it so we could create a pathfinder program at one of the colleges, perhaps one of them near Huntsville in North Alabama.”

Aerospace could be just the beginning, Crumbly says. “Metal doesn’t mind if it’s on an airplane, a rocket or a car,” he says. “It still needs to be fabricated.”

And VCSI wants Alabama and its community colleges to be at the forefront, as they were in the ’80s.

“Had we not created CAD technicians, we’d be way far behind where we are now in computer-aided design and manufacturing,” Crumbly says. “Community colleges can really expand our workforce and help engineers do what engineers do. We’re just starting to get the word out. If we can just get one school and one company to buy into this concept, I think it will be widespread. … Industry hasn’t completely bought into this as a way to do business. It’s coming, but it hasn’t grabbed hold, yet.”

Alec Harvey and Dennis Keim are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Harvey is based in Auburn and Keim in Huntsville.

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