Workforce: Robots at the ready

How an idea to help Alabama businesses retain employees became a draw for companies to locate in the state

Training space at the Robotics Technology Park includes a simulated shop floor and classrooms. Photo by Jennifer G. Williams.

A sprawling 85-acre campus complete with a test track and structures filled with state-of-the-art equipment sits across U.S. 31 from Calhoun Community College just north of the Tennessee River in Limestone County.

And while its buildings blend with the surrounding collegiate and industrial landscape, the mission of this campus makes it unique. The Robotics Technology Park (RTP) shares the latest innovations in technology and industry; it also trains Alabama workers how to best utilize and repair the equipment — all at no charge.

The RTP represents an $80 million collaboration among the state of Alabama, Alabama Community College System, Alabama Industrial Development Training (AIDT) and robotics industry leaders. These partnerships allow the RTC to offer its facilities and training as a benefit to Alabama companies — the only thing they need to pay for is lodging if needed.

“We look at this center as an asset for companies all across the state and for those looking to locate here,” says Ed Castile, executive director of AIDT and the deputy secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Workforce Development.

“Everything is happening so fast…we want to help companies, our businesses, keep up with that and the way you do that is by keeping your staff, your folks skilled up with today’s constantly changing technology and equipment — whether they need to get certified, recertified or learn a whole new system.”

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Alabama State Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) says the RTC has played a huge role in the state’s economic development over the past decade. “It has served its purpose as a jobs magnet — not only for North Alabama, but for the whole state,” he says.

“Employers and companies considering coming to Alabama are blown away by the facility and what it offers,” says Orr. “And when they learn that there’s no cost for companies that locate in Alabama, their eyes light up and they connect the dots to this invaluable workforce training in the emerging field of robotic technology.”

When the center opened in 2010, there were a few automobile manufacturers across Alabama, says Castile. Since that time, Alabama has quietly risen to become one of the top auto export states in the country, thanks in large part to incentives and programs that include the free training available at the RTC.

In fact, the RTC has made such an impact on the rapidly growing Alabama automotive industry that it was selected as Service Provider of the year in the Supplier of the Year awards presented recently by the Alabama Automotive Manufacturers Association, a trade group representing companies in the industry.

Rooted in Retention

Ed Castile, executive director of AIDT and the deputy secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Workforce Development.

“In about 2009, then-Gov. Bob Riley approached us [at AIDT] about helping companies that were losing their employees — particularly their skilled and industrial maintenance employees…the folks who keep our businesses running,” says Castile.

“So, we started with one building that opened in 2010 with plans for additional facilities. We opened our third phase in 2016 and still have about 35 acres on our site for future projects.”

Each of the three facilities serves a special purpose. Phase I, which opened in 2010, hosts the majority of the training and classes on campus. Phase II, which opened in 2011, is the 30,000-square-foot Advanced Technology Research and Development Center and features a test track and facility for robotics manufacturers. Phase III includes a 52,000-square-foot facility that houses the Integration, Entrepreneurial and Paint Dispense Training Facility, and is designed to facilitate building, installing and adapting automation equipment for new and existing manufacturing processes.

These expansions allow for more training because the technologies are continuing to grow, says Castile. “There’s a new thing now that some refer to as industry 4.0 — it’s like the new industrial revolution with technology — with everything going to cloud-based technologies, machines now are talking with each other. Our workers have to keep up with these things that seem to change and evolve almost daily.”

The RTC features new and specialized equipment and technology that constantly is updated and upgraded by the vendors themselves, says Castile, which ensures that the equipment used for training is the same as what Alabama employees will encounter on the job. Companies can train their employees to use new equipment before it’s even installed in their plants.

And while companies and employees from outside Alabama cannot use the RTC facilities, they are always welcome to visit and get pointers on how to create a similar facility in their own state. “As far as I know, this is the only facility of its kind in the country — one that exists solely to benefit in-state businesses,” says Castile.

Kristi Bain, AIDT assistant director for North Alabama, says the park and its purpose “have become part of my being. I feel blessed every time we get a call from another state or country agency asking [if] they can come see what we are doing here. We are always willing to show them and to help them connect with the best vendors that are out there.”

Never a Dull Moment

Larry Harris was one of the first instructors hired at the RTC. He’s taught several classes in various disciplines and loves the constant challenge of learning something new. “It’s never boring,” he says. “This field in general doesn’t get boring because there’s so much technology — it just keeps coming.

The large robotic arm can be configured for multiple applications, broadening the training options for students. Photo by Jennifer G. Williams.

“I tell everybody, if you want to get a job where you don’t have to learn anything else after you get the job, this is not the career for you,” says Harris. “But if you go into this, they’re going to bring out a new system. You’re going to have to learn how it works and if they bring in a new robot, somebody’s going to have to know how it works. They have to know how to program it, how to take it apart and put it back together.”

“The neat thing about my job is that they’re constantly getting new stuff and I get to learn how to use it and play with it,” he laughs.

Harris says he lets students experiment with the new equipment — to a point. “I tell them to get their money’s worth while they’re here,” he says. “Somebody will ask me, ‘will it do this?’ And I’m like, ‘Try it! Let’s see if it works,’ you know? The only thing I won’t let them do is anything that I think might get them injured or damage the equipment.”

Bain, who in April will be leaving the RTC she helped to build, says that trainee numbers have “skyrocketed” to the point of adding additional parking to accommodate everyone attending classes since “we [have] filled every inch of space with training.”

She adds that another amazing thing about RTP is that all classes offer an industry-recognized credential. “That speaks volumes of how hard the instructors work,” she says. “It has been an honor to work with businesses and vendors together to see them gain the training they need to be successful. The vendors have worked so hard with me to see the vision of industry come true.”

Jennifer Williams is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She is based in Hartselle.

This article appears in the March 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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