My New Logo!

As part of an effort to bring more students to my training facility in Lebanon, Tennessee (near Nashville), I have started a new training course that I believe is one of a kind.

I have been teaching PLC and HMI/SCADA classes for Automation Training for about 6 years now. It gives me a chance to travel around the country and meet new people. It is an ideal situation because they own lots of PLC trainers and laptops, and ship them around North America for us.

I am the only instructor for AT that has a training facility, and they sometimes hold classes here. But I also do training for a local engineering company (systems integrator) that has an internal training program called “NTH University“. In addition to teaching their interns and new engineers, I sometimes teach their customers in a custom one week PLC/HMI/Machine Vision class.

NTH University class, January 2019. Yup, that’s me!

If you have followed this blog much, you will have seen my “Mini Factory”. While I originally concepted this to be used for PLC classes, I realized early on that no one was going to be able to program the whole thing in a week of class. So now I have had a couple of classes where Automation NTH engineers come here and work on the system and concentrate on different techniques, such as auto sequences, part tracking and recipes. They can combine different existing parts of the full program with a new part they want to learn.

The “Mini Factory”

While the Mini Factory does have a Cognex Insight camera on it, the purpose is more for integration than for machine vision training. SO for the Automation Academy classes I am building a new machine vision and troubleshooting lab.

Machine Vision and Troubleshooting lab (Under Construction )

I have a Keyence CV-X402A system with a color camera, and Cognex IS2000, IS5400 (Color) and IS 7802 smart cameras. I have been doing machine vision applications since the mid 1990s, though mostly with the old DVT brand, so I feel comfortable creating a course. The troubleshooting lab has a conveyor that will be driven both by a relay control system and a PLC, which will also be connected to the vision cameras.. There is a VFD that is wired in along with the possibility of a later safety relay with light curtain and e-stop. This will be used for electrical troubleshooting, I will sabotage the system in various ways to allow students to troubleshoot with a multimeter.

The “Innovation” lab is on the back side of the vision and troubleshooting lab. This area is for prototyping using microprocessors like Arduino and Raspberry Pi, along with building board level circuits with discrete components like resistors, capacitors, integrated circuits and bread boards. I have an oscilloscope and function generator here, as well as soldering stations and various components.

“Innovation” lab (under construction)

Back when all of the Radio Shacks in Nashville closed I bought a lot of their small components and kits, and really never figured out what I could do with them related to industrial automation. This bench has been a wiring and fabrication area for building my simulation trainers.

Speaking of simulation trainers, all of my small Fischertechnik simulators are also available to the Automation Academy. I have completely finished two labs for AB MicroLogix and one for CompactLogix, with another on the way.

Simulation Trainer lab setup (under construction)

The partially finished enclosure shown on the right in the picture above is actually the PLC controller for the Vision and Troubleshooting Lab.

My “classroom”

Of course I also have a teaching area shown in the picture above with a projector and whiteboard.

My first Automation Academy class will be March 23-27, 2020 and will run the last week of every month. Because of Memorial Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas, the class will be a week earlier those months. I have reserved those weeks for this class for the rest of the year, 10 weeks in total.

So what will you be studying and learning? Whatever you wish! While I can handle up to eight students at a time in my facility, I only have full PLC training setups for 4-5 students, so registration will of course be limited. All of the subjects described above are available, including PLCs, Machine Vision, pneumatics, electrical troubleshooting, board level electronics, HMI programming and more. For curriculum I have both of my books (Industrial Automation: Hands On and Advanced PLC Hardware and Programming), and various other resources for machine vision and electronics. I even have an AutoCAD setup if someone wants to study that.

I have been teaching all of these subjects for a while now and have over 30 years of experience in these fields. In addition I have Lean/Six Sigma training and of course I am an Electrical Engineer with 8 years of additional electronics experience in the US Air Force, so I feel comfortable saying this is a one of a kind class that you won’t want to miss. Since this is just starting and will certainly evolve, students can sign up for one day or all five days, let me know what you want your curriculum to be ( I can send you a worksheet), and sign up for the class!

Cost is $500/person per day, my books are available at the class. First come, first serve, eventually this class may fill up pretty quick since I have limited seats.

Class Dates: March 23-27, April 20-24, May 18-22, June 22-26, July 20-24, August 24-28, September 21-25, October 26-30, November 16-20, and December 14-18. Prepaid students will have a guaranteed seat, I will fill others as they come in.

Come attend an Automation Academy class, you won’t be sorry!

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Courtesy of manavrachna.edu.in

This series of posts discusses the current state of industrial education in the US and around the world. I will cover topics covering elementary through high school education (including the STEM programs), vocational/technical schools and colleges, independent for profit courses both online and in-person, and some of the resources that can be found on the internet.

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I had thought my post on universities would be the last in this series, but it turned out I had more thoughts on the subject, so I decided to summarize my findings and discussions.

A little more than six years ago I started transitioning from doing design and programming work for custom machinery to teaching PLC and HMI programming. At first it was mostly contract work for Automation Training, who I still teach for. I traveled around the country doing classes in factories and conference rooms, meeting a lot of technicians and engineers, and occasionally got to discuss their previous training. Of course since I teach a specific technical skill, that is mostly what I learned about.

After I started my own training facility I started getting more in touch with the local community, and also branched out into teaching some other subjects. Back in December when I decided to write this series of posts, I started interviewing people in my area about education overall, and more specifically how well it would prepare students for future jobs in technology. What I found was a bit depressing.

After WWII, when the US had the luxury of being able to devote more resources and thought to the education system, there were several changes that took place over time. Different states could try different things and figure out what worked and what didn’t. In addition to the “3 Rs”, Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic, various new subjects started appearing in schools, from art to humanities, and of course more science and eventually technology. “Shop” classes would be instituted in junior high and high schools, including auto mechanics, machining, and even as on friend told me about his high school experience, “printing” shop. His high school in Iowa had five different types of hands on shop classes, including one for printing technology. This was in the 1960s, and his brother took these classes. He ended up working in the printing industry for over 40 years and eventually retired. So obviously classes like this were beneficial for many, especially kids that may have not had many other options besides farming.

In the 1990s it became well known that the US was falling behind other developed countries, and even some less developed ones, in science and math. The “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) movement began, but then got watered down with other subjects as proponents of other subjects such as arts and writing felt that their subjects were losing funding to the STEM subjects. As mentioned in my previous posts, STEM became STEAM, then STREAM, and now in my opinion is simply a buzzword.

I’m sure the intent of the above image is to interest children in technology and STEM, but the fact is, it’s just another fun toy to children. There are a lot of toys around now that will “Blow your Mind”, along with cell phones, computers and cool websites. Yet elementary students may not know how to use a pair of scissors or create something from imagination.

When I called my local high school to offer the FREE services of my training facility (which has a lot of “cool toys” like pneumatics, machine vision, PLCs, even Arduino and Raspberry Pi microprocessors) to high school STEM programs, the STEM coordinator informed me that she was a biology teacher and that their STEM program was for biotechnology. I dug a bit deeper, asking if they had interest in the technology for checking soil moisture or humidity, I was informed that there was really no place for that at this school. She referred me to another school that she thought might have a mechanical STEM program, and that the neighboring city had a robotics STEM club. So in many schools a kid with interest in an engineering or technical path has no resources, despite the US being one of the richest countries in the world. Unless they can get a ride to somewhere far away.

Even there I made another interesting discovery, my local high school’s hours are 7:50-2:50, while the next closest high school’s hours are 8:45-3:45. I have heard that the reason for this is that the buses have to carry students from both schools, and there aren’t enough buses or enough drivers. Kids often don’t get home until after 5pm.

When it came to the vo-techs and junior colleges, I had an ulterior motive since I am hoping to get my products and curriculum into them. So I made my visit a combination sales call and fact-finding mission. As I already knew, these schools spend a lot of money on nice labequipment. Most of the industrial automation related trainers are made by a company called Amatrol. While they do a nice job with the hardware, it is quite expensive.

TCAT Lebanon, Tennessee

The picture above is a picture I took through the glass at my local technology school. As I mentioned in Ch.4, I had taught some of the instructors at another school here in the state where they had invested a lot of money in equipment. So when it came time to build my own lab equipment I went to Amatrol to see what they could do for me. Their quote was quite expensive from my perspective, and they couldn’t customize it for me. It also came with their training curriculum, which I read through, and while it might be appropriate for some very low level industrial classes, it was nowhere close to what I needed.

ALLC “Mini Factory”

So I ended up building my own application. I used to build custom machinery out of extrusion, so I was able to build a pretty nice little trainer. It has since evolved a bit, and I occasionally use it for advanced training for a local engineering company. At the same time, it took a long time to build myself, and I have no urge to get back into the machine building business.

Simulation Trainers with Fischertechnik simulators

This evolved into a different project to come up with much less expensive options. These trainers are geared towards actually teaching students how to write a complete program, which is not what the community colleges teach. Community colleges and vo-tech schools need to be focused on the needs of the community, which is sort of a “lowest common denominator” approach. A friend I talked to last week said that about half of the kids in his tech school classes were young disinterested “punks” (his term, not mine) that had no idea what they wanted to do, but mom and dad would kick them out of the house if they didn’t go to school. This was the cheapest option.

Of course there are lots of exceptions, and some kids want and need more advanced training, which is where us independent companies come in. The problem there is that to afford an experienced teacher, software and good equipment the classes are much shorter in length. Again there is the economic aspect and also the lowest common denominator; classes have to meet the needs of industrial maintenance technicians, which again is more troubleshooting than creation.

So in summary despite all the talk about catching up other countries academics, we spend a lot of money on education, but don’t pay teachers much. Students are also distracted by a lot of other things and have a lot less discipline and focus than even a few decades ago.

I have kids of my own (though in their 30’s and no longer “kids”). Despite going to a middle of the road public school, they both went off to college and excelled, though not in industrial technical fields. The reason was that all the learning material was there, and my wife and I as parents were very involved in their lives and their education. But parents often leave the education entirely up to the schools, which is a huge mistake.

We are not the only country with this challenge, the picture at the top of this post came from an article from 2014 in India. The article said much of the same things that I have discovered.

This really is the final post of this series this time. Let me know what your experiences have been!

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Electrical Engineering lab in Germany – Courtesy of study-domain.com

This series of posts discusses the current state of industrial education in the US and around the world. I will cover topics covering elementary through high school education (including the STEM programs), vocational/technical schools and colleges, independent for profit courses both online and in-person, and some of the resources that can be found on the internet.

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I had a somewhat unusual path to college. After 8 years in the US Air Force, learning a lot of hands-on electronics and life skills, and even teaching for a couple of years, I enrolled in the Electrical and Computer Engineering program at the University of Tennessee. The first couple of years I spent taking the same courses that all engineers have to take; lots of math (Calculus I, II, III, Differential Equations and Matrix Math), science (Chemistry I and II, Statics, Dynamics, Physics I and II, Thermodynamics) and various humanities courses. We also took oddball engineering related classes like Intro to Engineering, Engineering Ethics, and later on Engineering Economics. Drafting was part of it, and we even got an intro to CAD, though personal computers were in their infancy. We often used the big central VAX computer for other programming tasks, but there were some IBM computers running DOS, 3.3 if I remember correctly.

All Electrical Engineering students took a “Circuits” class, the first EE specific class you had to take. Since I had already studied electronics in the Air Force, it was a pretty easy class for me, but this was where fully half of the people who started in Electrical Engineering failed out. Professors were notoriously hard on students, ensuring that they had what it took to be an engineer. There was a joke that called the Engineering programs “pre-business”, because a lot of students would transfer to the business school if they couldn’t make it through the technical and math classes.

Among other things, we had to design and build a 24v power supply. This involved a transformer, rectifier, amplifier and voltage regulation, and after testing it on a “bread board”, you had to solder it into a usable form. There was no class or instructional materials on soldering, and no suggestions from the professor on where to learn. I suppose there was a book on it somewhere in the library, but you couldn’t just look it up on the internet like now. I suppose it was another test for students. Again, since I had lots of experience in soldering and indeed had taught it, I taught a lot of my classmates how to solder. I was not the only ex-military or older student there, so I imagine this was common.

In my Senior year, I took a Microprocessor class. I had actually concentrated on Control Systems, and this was one of the classes you could take in that direction. One of the projects we had was to partner with another student and program it to drive a speaker that would play a song. After passing the first part of the project by playing a song of your choice for the professor, he would give you a piece of sheet music, and you had 1/2 hour to enter the notes into the microprocessor and play it for him. Initially a lot of students complained about this, saying they didn’t know how to read music and couldn’t possibly complete the assignment in that amount of time. The professor said “Music is just like any language, and you will have to use lots of programming languages in your career and learn them quickly”. Of course there were no excuses. Now I have played music since I was a kid, though I wasn’t exactly a “sight reader”, so I didn’t have a great deal of trouble completing the assignment.

I do remember studying hard and learning a lot of different things, but after graduating and getting into the real workplace I realized just what I didn’t know. Though I had learned a lot of math and good study habits, I didn’t know how to use and apply most of the components that were used in industry. Fortunately my first two jobs involved training schools put on by manufacturers like Allen-Bradley, Omron and Pepperl+Fuchs, so I picked up a lot there. There was a PLC class at the University, but I had not heard good things about it, so I didn’t take it. In the long run, it didn’t matter.

I have hired various university graduates and worked with even more of them, so I have been able to track whatever differences there might be from the program I went through. There is certainly a bit more hands on in most universities, and of course the internet allows students to quickly get information on almost any subject. But a complaint I constantly hear from experienced maintenance technicians in plants is that “that engineer didn’t know anything about real industry”. Well, when an engineer graduates at 22 years old and enters the workforce, of course they don’t have much if any work experience. Unless they worked with their hands before or during college, they probably can’t do much with them. But some of the things you get in college are more intangible; you learn how to learn.

When it comes to manufacturing companies hiring, human resources generally has a set of prerequisites for an entry level manufacturing engineering position. The pay will not be all that great, and they will probably be working under an experienced engineer for a while. But one requirement will always be the four year degree itself; when it comes to entry level positions for people from other countries it will require a Masters degree and the pay will be the same as for the American kid with a Bachelors. The grades of the student will matter, and possibly whatever other experience they might have. Companies often receive hundreds or more of applications and resumes for any specific job, and they need some criteria to put some on the short list.

In Chris Guillebeau’s excellent book The Art of Non-Conformity, he makes the point that one of the purposes of a university is to keep you there for four years or more and extract the appropriate amount of money from the student. Unfortunately since I was in school the cost of college has skyrocketed, and students and their parents often go into massive amounts of debt to be able to check that interviewer’s boxes.

As I mentioned in my previous Industrial Education post, there are less expensive and more hands-on options available. Some students opt to take the basic classes at a junior or community college before transferring to the University. But the requirement for a four or more year degree from an accredited university program still remains for engineering positions.

So what do I actually use from my Electrical Engineering degree? Almost nothing. The two most important things I learned were how to document and design, and how to solve problems. I already had most of the basic circuit knowledge, I rarely use the math and science, and 99% of the technology I learned is obsolete now. I learned most of the actual skills I have by doing and reading other peoples stuff, and I get a lot of my newest product knowledge from vendors, associates and online. I’ve picked up enough after college to be able to write a couple of books, and now teach what I know. Even my writing and teaching skills were not something I got from the university.

So in summary, what I have been discovering while writing these articles on Industrial Education and how well we prepare students for the industrial workplace, is that we fall very short in most areas. Much of education is driven by profit, and there are a lot of layers of bureaucracy that have nothing to do with learning the subject material. At the same time, we use exciting buzzwords like STEM and IIOT, without actually improving the system itself. Most of the knowledge an engineer needs is available cheap or free somewhere, but there is no clear path on where one would start. And without that important… expensive… piece of paper there is almost no chance of a promising engineering career.

I will be writing more on this subject at a later time, but this was as far as I originally intended to go on this topic. What do you think? How can we improve the readiness of people entering the technical workplace?

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This is a guest post from Cimtec Automation, a provider of automation solutions..

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It’s safe to say we wouldn’t be able to enjoy many of our modern conveniences without automation. Thanks to advancements in robotic technology, many industrial processes have been made faster, safer and more efficient.

Although the use of automated equipment is ubiquitous now, it’s important to remember that it was unheard of a “lifetime” ago. The first robots were used in industry in 1961, to unload parts in a die-casting facility. About 20 years later, Japanese manufacturers took advantage of new designs to introduce robotic production lines. Over the years, robots and artificial intelligence have advanced by leaps and bounds. Manufacturing and warehousing operations continue to find new ways in which they can improve and integrate their processes.

For instance, robotic devices can be used to perform the most dull, repetitive tasks on the assembly line with precision and accuracy every time. By minimizing — or eliminating — the possibility of human fatigue or boredom, errors can be basically eliminated. Robotics also enhance safety by replacing human workers who once were in dangerous environments or performing hazardous tasks. This reduces the amount of downtime caused by injuries and accidents.

As exciting as automation is for manufacturers today, the future holds virtually limitless possibilities. Thanks to the rapid development of artificial intelligence, robots are becoming smarter and more independent. Soon, humans and machines will be able to collaborate more closely on even more complex jobs.

For additional information about how far automation has come and how far it can go, see the accompanying infographic.

The Evolution of Automation & Robotics created by CIMTEC.
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Hawkeye Community College Industrial Education Class

This series of posts discusses the current state of industrial education in the US and around the world. I will cover topics covering elementary through high school education (including the STEM programs), vocational/technical schools and colleges, independent for profit courses both online and in-person, and some of the resources that can be found on the internet.

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After High School in the United States, young people have several different paths they can follow. Besides those who have no idea what they want to do and stay at home trying to figure it out, there are basically 5 general things they can do:

1. Get a job. Without some kind of further training it can be difficult to land a job that pays much over the minimum wage. In this country there are a lot of kids who get stuck in service or retail jobs that they hate.

2. Get an apprenticeship/internship. There are very few of these positions available for young people with no experience. I have heard that in Europe and Canada there are programs that allow young adults to train at different companies for a reduced wage while they learn, while learning technical or clerical skills, but these are much harder to find in the US without “knowing somebody” at the company. Junior colleges and Universities provide more of these opportunities.

3. Join the military. In the United States, we have one of the largest and most well funded military services in the world. There are a lot of jobs in the military that provide good technical training, this is the path that I took after High School. I went into the Air Force, and ended up studying electronics, which is what led to my current field. After about a year of full-time school, I then taught electronics after that for a year, then ended up in an Engineering and Installation Group, which allowed me to travel and get some hands on experience. I did eight years in the 1980s and learned valuable technical and life lessons.

Unfortunately most military jobs are not this way, and some young people learn how to count rivets while guarding airplanes (an Air Force joke) or carry heavy things around while being shot at. While the military does have excellent training, not everyone has the aptitude and opportunity for skills that transfer to the civilian world. I found that even with my electronics training I couldn’t just get out and find a technical job where I could use my skills. My training was specific to certain kinds of hardware.

4. Go to a four year college and beyond. I got out of the military at 29 years of age and enrolled in a University for Electrical Engineering. At that time the Air Force did not have what’s known as the GI Bill, which would pay for school, so I had to find other ways including family help, working while studying, and of course debt. I did manage to graduate after 4 years, but even then I was competing for jobs with people 10 years younger. While I did land a job that led to my current field of Controls Engineering, it was hard and didn’t pay much to start.

Now 4 year colleges and Universities in the United States have become some of the most expensive in the world. Kids and parents are going into a lot of debt to get degrees from prestigious schools and sometimes get education in fields that don’t allow them to pay it back. This is a problem for others to discuss. I will also say that even though I went to a good Electrical Engineering school at a large University, most of what I learned is now obsolete or didn’t really apply in the first place. I could do some fancy math, learned a lot of science stuff, and got the “experience”, but much of EE or ECE classes back then had very little hands on work involved, it was… and still is… very theoretical. Probably the most important thing I gained from formal college was learning how to frame and solve technical problems. I learned 98% of what I use today after graduating from college. Of course doors were opened to me that I would have never had without having the “piece of paper”, my diploma.

5. Vocational Schools and Junior/Community Colleges. While I was still in the Air Force I took my college English and lower level math classes, paid for by the government. At Jefferson Davis Community College there were no industrial classes, partially because at the time (mid-80s) there was very little manufacturing in that area. Computers weren’t in wide use yet, and there was very little automated machinery outside of low level but expensive PLCs and discrete relay/timer controlled equipment. There was probably some kind of machine shop or auto mechanic type class there, but I’m not sure.

Fast forward to today, when there are lots of high tech, hands on classes available in almost every area of the country. As part of my recent development of training equipment, I have scoped out a lot of the training centers in my state. I live in Tennessee, which is a mid sized state as far as US states go. Here is what I found:

The community college program is run by the Tennessee Board of Regents. There are 13 junior colleges with name “state” in their title, i.e. Nashville State, Dyersburg State, Volunteer State, Motlow State, you get the idea. These colleges generally serve the area they are located and provide up to a 4 year Bachelor’s degree. They also serve as a lower cost entry point to the University system. The large Universities in my state include the University of Tennessee of which there are several locations, Vanderbilt University, Middle Tennessee State University, and the University of Memphis. There are also a lot of private universities including Belmont, Lipscomb, Fisk and many more. The Tennessee Board of Regents does not administer the bigger state universities or the private ones. These junior or community colleges generally provide all of the academics and humanities required to transfer to a large university but cost less.

In addition to the 13 community colleges the are 27 “TCAT” centers located around the state. TCAT is an acronym for Tennessee College of Applied Technology. These schools work closely with the Tennessee Workforce Development Board, a state government sponsored group that is responsible for increasing the competitive position of Tennessee businesses and attracting new businesses through the development of a highly skilled workforce.

A couple of weeks ago, just before the Christmas break I visited one of the TCAT facilities here in my town of Lebanon, Tennessee. I first sat down with Kevin Harrison, Academic Affairs and Community Relations coordinator. Here are some things I learned:

Some of the courses taught in the TCAT program; Administrative/Office Technology, Advanced Manufacturing, IT, Auto Mechanics, Machining, Nursing, Building Construction, Health Sciences and Industrial Technology/Mechatronics. Some High School programs like Cosmetology and Culinary arts are also administered by TCAT.

Our Lebanon facility is only a few years old, and is a sub-campus of TCAT in Hartsville, a small town a half hour or so away. The Hartsville facility has been around for about 55 years! There is also another small campus administered by Hartsville TCAT in Red Boiling Springs, a rural community near Kentucky.

The diploma earned from the different courses may or may not be accepted by other states and companies, but there is an ongoing relationship with manufacturing facilities in the region. The companies work with the TCAT centers and provide input on what kind of skills are needed in the workforce. So a diploma or certificate from a TCAT will probably get you preference in hiring at a local company.

Kevin took me over to the Advanced Automation lab to introduce me to the instructor, and to my surprise it was Ralph Reed, who I had worked with 25 years ago! At that time I worked for an Omron distributor and rep, and Ralph was the Omron regional guy for Tennessee. We attended several of the Omron training courses on PLCs, sensors and Machine Vision in 1994, so knew Ralph fairly well back then. We went to lunch and he told me a bit more about the programs, which reinforced some of what I already knew.

About three or four years ago I taught a Siemens class for Automation Training at one of the state community colleges, Pellissippi State. As I mentioned in my post, my students were teachers at Pellissippi and some other local vocational schools. They already knew Allen-Bradley’s products which are in wide use in the area, but needed to learn the Siemens Step 7 platform. As shown in the pictures from that post (click on the link above), they had some really nice lab equipment similar to what Ralph showed me. I had four or five students; two were graduate students at the University of Tennessee who were teaching here while getting advanced degrees in engineering, and two were retired maintenance guys with at least thirty years of experience in the field. I’ve found this typical of the instructors at vocational schools as far as background.

One interesting occurrence during the class: we got to the part where I usually explain UDTs to students, and I mentioned that Siemens UDTs worked like Allen-Bradley’s UDTs and served the same purpose. Without exception they stared at me like I was from Mars. Despite the fact they taught ControlLogix PLCs, they did not know what a UDT was! In their defense, the class they taught was very basic, and the purpose of the class was just to introduce students to PLCs. Ralph mentioned that beyond bits, timers and counters the class really didn’t get that far into it and the purpose was not to teach programming. Still, without UDTs a ControlLogix could be any other PLC, they all have timers and counters and bit logic.

As I mentioned, part of the reason I visited the local TCAT was to determine whether I could eventually get my advanced PLC curriculum and/or training equipment into the local junior colleges and vocational schools like TCAT. And the answer is… maybe. While my little factories and trainers are less expensive than the extrusion-based Amatrol systems they use and my curriculum is certainly more advanced, the equipment is marketed via educational manufacturer’s reps that aren’t even in the state. So it will be a long hard road to market my products. But of course I will keep trying.

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In several of my old posts I mentioned that I had hired students from ITT Tech, a for-profit technical school that had several campuses here in Tennessee. I employed five or six young people, some of who stayed on after they graduated. I knew ITT Tech no longer had schools in Tennessee, and had heard several stories but never really researched it. Here is what I found through a simple Google search:

ITT Tech Shutters All Its Locations, Including Nashville

For-profit education giant closes down a week after being hit with federal sanctions. by J.R. Lind, The Patch (Tennessee local paper), Sept. 6, 2016

NASHVILLE, TN — After nearly a half-century of operation, for-profit education giant ITT Technical Institute announced it is closing all of its locations nationwide, including the Nashville campus on Elm Hill Pike, immediately.

In a statement, the Carmel, Ind.-based company said the “overwhelming majority” of its 8,000 employees have been laid off as part of the shutdown.

“It is with profound regret that we must report that ITT Educational Services, Inc. will discontinue academic operations at all of its ITT Technical Institutes permanently after approximately 50 years of continuous service. With what we believe is a complete disregard by the U.S. Department of Education for due process to the company, hundreds of thousands of current students and alumni and more than 8,000 employees will be negatively affected,” the statement read, in part.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education prohibited ITT Tech from taking any federal aid and required it raise its cash reserves from $94.4 million to $247.3 million. The sanctions, a response to reports that ITT Tech students were not adequately trained, were saddled with a disproportionate amount of student-loan debt and that ITT Tech used predatory practices on potential students, led ITT Tech to stop enrolling students.

It was effectively a death sentence for the schools. (End of Article)

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The guys I hired from ITT were typical young people learning new skills at the trade school. My machine building company helped further their education by providing work for students, similar to how local companies have input to the Workforce Development Board. ITT Tech was almost certainly more expensive than these TCAT and vocational schools, but they provided decent education using probably the same instructor pool. I have not personally examined the curriculum from either but it appears from an outside perspective to be similar. So overall, having the state administer these programs is probably better and certainly less expensive than for-profit schools. The facilities also serve many more locations across the state than the for-profit schools, which were only located in metro areas.

I would be very interested in input from other states and countries. Please leave your comments below or drop me a line!

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This series of posts discusses the current state of industrial education in the US and around the world. I will cover topics covering elementary through high school education (including the STEM programs), vocational/technical schools and colleges, independent for profit courses both online and in-person, and some of the resources that can be found on the internet.

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Brookhaven National Labs – High School Research Program (HSRP)

I went to High School in Tucson, Arizona in the 1970s. We didn’t have the technology and resources that are available now, but there were some interesting classes I was able to take, including a very basic computer class, a class called “TV Programming” where we were able to use video and audio production equipment, and a few shop classes where we could learn to do woodworking and work with plastics. Chemistry and Biology were available for those who had the interest, and we had a very large library. Overall I went to a modern school for the time.

For advanced classes there was a “Magnet” high school that taught Physics and Calculus. Though I was not a very good student, I was on the High School Chess team, so I associated with a lot of people who attended that school. It was about a 40 minute bus ride from our area and required good performance and aptitude to be accepted.

The magnet school was commonly accepted to be for students who would go on to college. Unlike some other areas of the US, there was very little manufacturing or industrial activity in Arizona at that time; most of the students I knew that went there ended up in academics.

Beginning in the 1990s, recognition that the United States was falling behind other developed countries in mathematics and sciences brought about an emphasis on technical education. The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education movement was born, followed by STEAM, which added Arts to the acronym. In some schools, STEM education led to a rapid expansion and segmentation of rigorous math and science courses, taught in largely the same way they’ve always been taught. The result? Saturating students with STEM classes without accounting for engagement or interest led to stagnant growth. STEAM proponents also said that the STEM movement has caused a marginalization of arts programs and funding in schools and has led to widespread student disengagement.

Some have even coined the term “STREAM”, where the R represents “Reading and ‘Riting”, which takes us almost full circle basically including everything except for the humanities, while also of course misspelling the word writing, which seems to defeat the purpose.

I interviewed a former co-worker who was involved in the STEM program at a local High School, and he gave me an interesting perspective. My old employer, Wright Industries, used to sponsor a program here in the Nashville area. This particular school is in a lower socioeconomic area and had a high dropout rate. The second year that they participated in the robotics competition they won the region, and a few years later the school became a STEM “magnet” school, concentrating on engineering, IT, Science and Criminal Justice programs. Academic performance improved and students from other areas were brought into the school.

Programs like this bring more scholarships and internships to the schools as long as the community is involved. The down side of this particular school’s program was that my friend Doug said he was on the board of this school’s STEM program for four years before meeting any parents. He also said that though companies would donate time and materials to the program, often more was needed. For instance, a CAD company would donate software but it would require higher performance computers, which wouldn’t be available.

Over 4000 volunteer hours were spent by companies for the STEM programs at this High School, but there was quite a bit of turnover among the teachers. The machine builder I used to work for also decided to withdraw from this school’s program last year, donating to other causes.

I was surprised to learn how much of these programs were donated to and run by outside companies. According to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), the US spends more per student than any other country except Austria, Norway and Luxembourg on primary and secondary education, yet according to data from the Programme for International Student Assessment, 15-year-olds in the U.S. ranked 31st on OECD standardized mathematics tests, and their test scores were far below average in reading and science.

Robotics, 3D printing and controls programs in high schools give students a taste of technology, but they generally use microprocessors like Arduino and Raspberry Pi rather than using PLCs. Many of the programs are partially written already and programs are easily obtained via download or YouTube videos. If the intent is to prepare secondary students for industry, I would like to see more of a focus on introduction to real industrial processes. While 3D printing is a form of manufacturing (additive), it is not in widespread use for production. Most robots don’t move around on wheels like AGVs and put a ball through a hoop, and they probably shouldn’t fight with each other. At the same time, they do create interest and lead students into the field.

Bringing more teachers with experience in the industrial world would also be productive, but current teacher pay is not going to entice engineers to move into education, especially experienced ones. Curriculum that reflects industry is available at a college level, but is not used in American High Schools.

So far my research on the state of education as it relates to the industrial workplace has not shown any major strides toward improvement of the potential American workforce. Despite spending a lot of money and creating buzzwords and themes like “No child left behind” and STEM/STEAM/STREAM it doesn’t appear that the US has made significant improvements over the past 30 years. Perhaps my next post on trade/vocational schools and junior/2year college will provide better news…

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This series of posts discusses the current state of industrial education in the US and around the world. I will cover topics covering elementary through high school education (including the STEM programs), vocational/technical schools and colleges, independent for profit courses both online and in-person, and some of the resources that can be found on the internet.

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Preparing people for the workforce starts at a very young age. Before starting school at age 5 or 6 years old children absorb information at a rapid rate, developing basic skills from parents and pre-school programs. Often children can read and know how to behave long before starting school. Unfortunately, not every child has the same opportunity to develop skills before reaching school age, whether because of lack of parental involvement or lack of resources.

Teachers in elementary education are required to take classes in child psychology, curriculum development, science, English, mathematics and technology. They also usually have to intern at a school, learning techniques from other teachers.

While there are national standards for education, curriculum requirements in the US are often administered at a state and local level. Resources and funding are also a mixture of national, state and local. This creates a large difference in quality depending on where a child lives and goes to school. Everything is affected, from teacher salaries to the facilities to the books and raw materials.

A relatively recent development in education is the focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). After World War II there was a push to get back to the fundamentals of education, “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic”. Much of this involved rote memorization and drills. In the 1970s education evolved into a more individualized and equality based system. As technology evolved in the 1990s and 2000s, an instructional shift took place in the US towards STEM. With recognition that creative thinking was also required, a call to include the Arts was added, hence the modified acronym “STEAM”, (Science, Technology, Engineering Arts and Math).

This approach advocates that education moves away from compartmentalizing subjects and emphasizes skills acquisition, collaboration, problem solving, and critical thinking. Some schools however has taken this to mean that rigorous science and math classes should be taught to everyone regardless of interest, leading to student disengagement. Much of the evolution from STEM to STEAM was in response to marginalizing arts programs due to extra funding of science and technology programs, which often require technology products and teaching aids.

Last week I interviewed Beatriz Rodriquez, who founded Braingineers Lab, a “Makerspace” that has afterschool programs involving STEM/STEAM projects and workshops. She has also worked in the presecondary school system and had some good feedback on the current state of elementary through high school education.

She said that children were learning to read and write early and that there was an emphasis on learning these skills in Kindergarten and even preschool, but she would sometimes have students that didn’t yet have the hand skills to use a pair of scissors. Because of the easy availability of entertainment like television and video games, kids often didn’t have much creativity. They also sometimes hadn’t needed to persevere much and make things work. Programs at Braingineers Lab allow children to explore and learn new skills.

Makerspaces allow adults with shared interests, especially in computing, technology or specialized crafting, gather to work on projects while sharing ideas, tools and knowledge. Braingineers provides a place for children to do this on a workshop or afterschool basis, also providing activities for homeschoolers. Learning through STEAM based techniques helps promote creativity, innovation, higher order thinking, and problem-solving skills.

She also mentioned that there were some good programs at some of the elementary and middle schools in the area, providing resources for robotics and CAD, 3D printing and other technology programs, but that it was not consistent across all schools. Braingineers provides a place for programs like this. She also plans to add a sound studio soon.

Programs like this are more expensive than typical paid afterschool activities like gymnastics, dance and martial arts due to the cost of some of the technology and materials, but they provide skills that can be used in the workplace when kids get older. Skills like soldering and wiring of electrical circuits, CAD and 3D modeling and programming software are directly transferrable to later work skills.

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One thing I have noticed while researching these educational topics: schools don’t seem to have a problem spending money on technology and hardware for training, but teachers and instructors are typically not paid very well compared to other professions. This is true in public and private schools, junior colleges and vocational schools, and even in colleges and universities with the exception of tenured professors. Even then, considering that they have spent ten years or more in post-secondary education, they may make more in the private sector. If an engineer wanted to teach in high school or junior college they would need to take a serious pay cut. I don’t have a solution to this problem, but it seems that there is a lot of administrative overhead. The US spends more per student than most other developed countries, but the test results don’t seem to match the resources expended.

Please let me know your thoughts on this subject. Next up: High school and more on STEM/STEAM programs!

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Industrial Class in Maharashtra, India

I have been writing this blog on and off for almost 9 years now. From the beginning my intent has been to provide a free source of information to people interested in Industrial Automation; the field has been very rewarding for me and I hope to share my passion on the subject with other people from around the world.

When I started writing this in 2011 I posted almost daily, then weekly, then biweekly, then… well, I have let it slide quite a bit over the past couple of years. The fact is, its a bit lonely and not that rewarding to write a blog. You don’t get feedback every week and you run out of things to write about.

In 2011 I was still at Wright Industries, a large machine builder here in Nashville, Tennessee. People at work encouraged me and read my posts, and a year or two later I wrote a book containing some of the information I had posted here. I then moved into contracting for other machine builders and integrators, then into teaching PLC/HMI and SCADA, which I still do now. So industrial education has been a very important part of what I do for most of the lifetime of this blog.

This series of posts will discuss the current state of industrial education in the US and around the world. I hope to cover topics covering elementary through high school education (including the STEM programs), vocational/technical schools and colleges, independent for profit courses both online and in-person, and some of the resources that can be found on the internet.

I have already written a few posts on education and training, the first all the way back in February, 2011. As far as my background, I received my first technical education when I joined the US Air Force in 1981 after failing to graduate from High School. I was trained in electronics and became an electronics instructor in 1982. I went to a university as a 30 year old freshman and received my Electrical Engineering degree in 1993, and have been involved in industrial automation ever since, including a 10 year period of owning a custom controls integration and machine building company from 1996-2006. So I have a lot of background in the field and a lot to say on the subject of industrial and technical training and education. I hope you enjoy the next few posts!

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Micro Trainer – Suitable for Small PLCs

Along with the Simulation Trainers I described in previous posts I have been working on a do-it-yourself kit. I have built a couple of these and have documented all the assembly instructions in a wiring manual that comes with the kit. I shipped one of these to Shawn Tierney of the Automation Blog/Automation School, and unfortunately it revealed the weakness of using a glued plastic box. So now I am in the process of redesigning the enclosure to make a bolt-together version using aluminum extrusion and the same type of plastic door shown above. The weak spots were the hinges and door latch, though the plastic itself works well.

I am still somewhat undecided on the back part that the din-rail mounts to. Previously I used 1/4″ plastic and tapped holes. This required using acorn nuts because the screws stuck out the back. The new material will be 1/2″ and easily tapped, possibly some kind of composite material. You may wonder why I don’t just use a regular fiberglass or plastic enclosure? I actually visited Bud Industries in Cleveland, the make some of the least expensive enclosures out there. The cost was still quite high for custom cutouts and delivery was pretty long. The other advantage of a kit is that it can ship flat, plus it makes it interesting to actually assemble everything.

All of the components fit in the cardboard box shown above, but even after wrapping the enclosure in bubble wrap it didn’t do well in shipping. This new design should work much better.

This is a picture of the larger box. It is suitable for a full-sized PLC such as Allen-Bradley’s SLC or ControlLogix, or Siemens S7-300 or S7-1500. The blue box at the top of this post is a good size for the A-B Micrologix or CompactLogix, or the Siemens S7-1200. There are other kits available online, but I don’t think you will find anything with as good of an instruction manual, and I have gone to extremes making it as inexpensive as possible. It also has my cool stacklight and E-Stop features just like my simulation trainers.

This should be completely ready for release by the beginning of the year. Check out my store at www.automationllc.com to keep up with what’s available.

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As some of you may or may not know, I have been creating a suite of PLC training products. I have made simulator trainers that control Fischertechnik factory simulations, written an Advanced PLC book to accompany the simulators, and created various accessories that work with the whole system. I was advised by a potential customer that a lot of schools and plants can get new PLCs much cheaper than us normal folks, so developing a do-it-yourself kit where the customer could provide their own PLC would be a good idea, so I have done that. 

Unfortunately the hardware was the easy part. I have built and documented two different sized kits using an Allen-Bradley Micrologix PLC while keeping it generic enough that any PLC should be OK. But when it came to writing the manual it took a lot of work and hundreds of pictures and drawings. I am almost done with the manual, and it is about 50 pages long! Fortunately, I have a fairly inexpensive way to print them, using the same company that prints my Advanced PLC book.

The advice I need is whether to formally publish this manual as a book with an ISBN number. It only costs me about $85 to get the number, and that would make it sellable on Amazon, etc. The thing is, it is a step by step guide for a specific set of components. The manual would be included for anyone buying the kit. But would anyone buy a manual for a kit that they didn’t buy? There is a full list of components in the manual, so theoretically someone could buy all of the components themselves and build the panel. But the enclosure is custom made to save money, and I purposely didn’t put a lot of terminal blocks or labeling in the kit, both to save the customer money and to make it easier to wire. Since I am assuming the person building the kit may not know many of the techniques and tools used in panel fabrication, there is a lot of information in the manual on those subjects, but for instance there is nothing on soldering (I used crimpable terminals), nothing on electricity (though I am putting some safety and debug related stuff in there), and no examples of standard larger enclosures and panels. If I were writing an actual panelbuilding book, all that would be there as well as more on labeling, grounding, enclosures, wire gauges, etc.

But that would be a more expensive, much longer book. The question is, would there be a market for a small book like this, kind of an “Introduction to Panel Building”? Any advice is appreciated.

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