How North Central Michigan College is Preparing Students for Industry 4.0 Careers
Posted on May 27, 2022

North Central Michigan College is making investments to prepare students for high-wage, high-demand careers in Industry 4.0. With three key strategies in place, the Manufacturing and Engineering Technology program will address the ever-growing need for an advanced manufacturing workforce in the state.

Advanced manufacturing is evolving; how can education keep up?

Forget dark, dirty and dangerous. Advanced manufacturing today is high-tech, clean, digitized and exciting. Not to mention the career opportunities, which are high-wage, hands-on, rewarding, and offer tons of room for upward mobility for those who want to grow in the industry.

But do students know about this modern world of manufacturing? And do they have ready access to programs in their region that can give them the skills and credentials to jump into Industry 4.0 careers?

In northern Michigan, the answer to both of those questions is a resounding yes.

Learning in an Industry 4.0 lab space

Walk into the Manufacturing and Engineering Technology Lab at North Central Michigan College, and you’ll know what modern advanced manufacturing looks like. Surrounding the perimeter of the lab are hands-on training systems for industrial technology: electro-mechanical systems, fluid power, drives and motors, HMIs, programmable logic controllers, industrial robots. The colors are bright and inviting; the technology is cutting-edge.

Jerry Brusher (left) and Bob Carpenter (right) of North Central Michigan College pose with the Amatrol 870 Mechatronics system

Jerry Brusher (left) and Bob Carpenter (right) with the Amatrol 870 Mechatronics system

At the center of the lab stands the newest and most impressive addition – the Amatrol 870 Mechatronics System. The system replicates the modern smart factory. Every individual component from around the lab is integrated into one large manufacturing line that’s fully automated and loaded up with smart sensors, IIoT devices and Industry 4.0 capabilities.

By appearance alone, hands-on learners and self-proclaimed gearheads are drawn to the Mechatronics System – who wouldn’t want to enroll in a course that would give them access to this technology? But the curriculum is key: hundreds of hours of learning around operations, troubleshooting and maintenance, integration, programming and analytics – all on real industrial components – prepare students with the skills and certifications to enter the advanced manufacturing workforce with confidence.

That outcome is all the more crucial when we consider the growing demand for advanced manufacturing talent.

The growing manufacturing skills gap

Deloitte’s 2022 Manufacturing Industry Outlook report anticipates GDP growth in manufacturing of 4.1% for 2022. At the same time, job openings remain near all-time highs at more than 800,000, with an expected 2.1 million skilled jobs unfilled by 2030. You can’t drive through an industrial park without seeing “help wanted” signs on every building.

The problem is clear: we need more skilled talent entering manufacturing.

Technical and community colleges play a central role in solving the talent gap. And those that invest in their manufacturing programs will see their students achieve great success in the workforce.

Industry 4.0 is widening the talent gap in manufacturing

But it’s not enough to offer the same industrial technology courses that have been around for decades. Manufacturing is undergoing a massive digital transformation, also known as Industry 4.0. And education needs to evolve with it.

Across the globe, manufacturing facilities are becoming fully automated, connected and “smart.” New technologies like smart sensors and devices, cyber-physical systems, artificial intelligence, digital twins, data analytics and the convergence of IT and OT operations are becoming standard in industry.

The job of technical and community colleges in 2022 is not only to prepare students for manufacturing, but to update their curriculum and programs to ensure their students are Industry 4.0-ready.

Three ways North Central Michigan College is meeting the needs of the smart manufacturing workforce

North Central Michigan College is a prime example of a college that’s meeting the needs of this smart manufacturing workforce. Like many community colleges, North Central has courses that teach traditional manufacturing processes and technologies, like CNC machining. But they’ve now added a new engineering technology program that focuses more heavily on automation, systems integration, and Industry 4.0.

Jim Cousino, Dean of Career and Technical Education at North Central, has put together a strong faculty team with decades of experience in industry to ensure the program’s success. Together, this team has built a program with three key components that every technical and community college advanced manufacturing program should have:

  1. Curriculum aligned to industry standards & certifications
  2. Technology that is Industry 4.0-grade
  3. A program that offers multiple pathway options

1. Creating a program with industry in mind

Jerry Brusher and Bob Carpenter spent their careers in industry – at manufacturing giants like Ford – and now, both are adjunct professors in the engineering technology program. Their strong background in industry means they know the needs of the local workforce and can make sure the curriculum meets those needs.

Everything being taught in the program – from processes to skills to technology – ties back to industry relevance. This sets the students up for long-term career success.

“Our goal here as we talk to these students,” noted Carpenter, “is we want to prepare you for a career, not just a job. So we emphasize that with all students.”

With this in mind, the team chose to build their curriculum around the standards set by the Smart Automation Certification Alliance (SACA). SACA is the world’s only credentialling body that provides third-party certifications and stackable micro-credentials around Industry 4.0 technologies.

The best part about SACA certifications? They’re completely defined and validated by industry. SACA’s certifications and micro-credentials are all developed in collaboration with some of the world’s most recognized leaders in advanced manufacturing.

During a recent national webinar about the SACA movement in Michigan, Cousino shared why the college aligned their program around these credentials: “The outcomes were solid, the competencies were solid, and they were translated into actual competencies for engineering and tech programs.”

Students will be able to earn Associate Level credentials which will validate their skills in basic and advanced operations, robot system operations, and IIoT, networking and data analytics. Students can also earn micro-credentials, which recognize skills in highly-focused subject areas like electrical systems, PLCs, motor control troubleshooting and more.

They can then take these micro-credentials and stack them into full Specialist-level certifications. Having a certification like Automation Systems Specialist is a great way to show a prospective employer that a student has the capabilities to work in an automated advanced manufacturing facility.

But to deliver the courses and certifications, the team had to make sure their lab space was equipped with the right technology.

2. Investing in Industry 4.0 learning systems

Like many manufacturing labs, students at North Central have access to individual trainers that focus on fundamental industrial technologies (electrical, mechanical, fluid power, motors, drives, etc.).

What makes the lab top-notch is the integration of these technologies into complex automated systems. This is where the new Amatrol 870 Mechatronics System comes in, which was installed this spring and will be ready for students in the fall semester.

It took months of research and planning to decide on the right training system for the program. Brusher commented on the process that led the team to choose the Amatrol platform:

“We followed that path from what does industry need and through the credentials, and then through the curriculum to support the credentials…The smart factory really encompasses all those pieces: the different kinds of individual disciplines, the specific skills and competencies, and integrating them together into this whole sequence of operations.”

Colleges across the country have come to the same conclusion, finding Amatrol’s eLearning, curriculum and training systems to stand the test of quality, industry-relevance and alignment to certifications. The college worked closely with ATS Midwest, the state’s top provider of technical training systems, to outfit the lab with the hands-on learning equipment and curriculum alignment to SACA.

With the new mechatronics system, North Central is able to teach all those skills and competencies that the fourth industrial revolution have brought about: smart sensors and devices, data analytics, IIoT and more. The equipment investments are part of a long-term plan to evolve the program with the growing needs of an Industry 4.0 workforce.

Carpenter agreed, noting the value of having an automated smart factory in the classroom: “This is the direction that everybody is going: Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things. And that’s the direction we’re going.”

It’s an exciting development for the program and students, and it’s just the start. Cousino and his team strategized far beyond the manufacturing lab space. They kept the big picture at the forefront of their plans, making sure there are built-in opportunities for more learners to enter the program, gain relevant skills, and find multiple options to their next career step.

3. Developing multiple pathways to advanced manufacturing

One of the biggest disruptions taking place in higher education in 2022 is that it’s becoming more flexible, accessible and customizable, with more on-ramps and off-ramps to broader ranges of career pathways than ever before. North Central is no exception to this movement.

A key feature of the Manufacturing and Engineering Technology program is its flexibility to reach learners where they’re at and move them to the next step in their journey. They do this through three pathways: workforce development (for the incumbent workforce), terminal degrees, and a 2 + 2 transfer program.

Incumbent employees looking to upskill, or individuals wanting to launch a career in advanced manufacturing can take advantage of courses through the school’s Corporate and Community Education (CCE) division, where they can earn credentials though SACA or the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council (MSSC).

Individuals will also be able to enroll in a terminal degree program, earning an associate in applied science degree. They can take this direct to workforce and start a career in a high-wage, high-demand position as an operator, programmer, or technician with ample room for upward mobility.

A third option, and one that’s becoming more popular across the country, is the ability for students to go through two years at the college and transfer to a partner university. There they’ll be able to complete a bachelors degree in engineering technology. Currently, North Central is building these partnerships with Lake Superior State University, Ferris State University, and Central Michigan University. Once again, SACA plays a key role in standardizing curriculum across different levels of education to make those transfers as seamless as possible.

With all these options available to them, learners can find the right pathway that fits their schedule, budget, and career goals.

Building a pipeline of advanced manufacturing talent

It’s an exciting time in manufacturing and technical education, and North Central Michigan College is making the most of it. With these updates to their program, they’re going to create a strong pipeline of talent that will benefit the workforce and economy in Northern Michigan.

The students will benefit from having the technical education to kickstart a rewarding career. The employers will benefit from having highly-skilled employees capable of programming, operating and maintaining their automated facilities. And the economy at large will benefit from a strong manufacturing industry.

Colleges across the country can take note of the strategies Jim Cousino and his team at North Central Michigan College have implemented. With efforts like these replicated across the country, we’re well on our way to securing the American Dream for the next generation of STEM and workforce talent.

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