Ready or not, the robots are coming. Probably sooner, rather than later.

We already have the engineers and computer scientists at CMU and Pitt and occupying Pittsburgh’s growing Robotics Row. Training future high-tech manufacturing talent, however, is another challenge entirely.

To help meet this goal, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has awarded a $498,000 PAsmart Advancing STEM grant to the South Side-based educational nonprofit, BotsIQ, which has been developing educational programming for high school students for years. Now, they can expand their programming to serve middle schools with their popular robotics-based curriculum.

“There are a lot of highly-skilled, rewarding jobs in manufacturing, and PDE has given BotsIQ an opportunity to strengthen the path for students to fill them,” says BotsIQ Executive Director Michel Conklin.

The BotsIQ Cobot Challenge invites middle school teams to build “cobots” — collaborative robots — that work beside humans to accomplish a task. Students will receive a kit to create a robotic arm, from the shoulder to the wrist. Teams will assemble the kit, design and manufacture an end for the arm, create a power system and program their robot to fulfill its assigned function.

Photo courtesy of BotsIQ.

Students will also get to take a tour of a manufacturing facility or post-secondary institution that has a collaborative robot to see how they’re used in the real world.

The program gives students hands-on learning experiences in four technical areas: mechanical engineering and computer-aided design, electrical engineering and electronics, computer science and programming, and fabrication with machining and 3-D printing.

“Identifying and developing a career plan is a challenge for students, especially middle school students,” says Conklin. “Introducing a middle school program to BotsIQ will allow younger students to experience exciting opportunities for STEM and manufacturing career exploration and real-world skill development.”

Photo courtesy of BotsIQ.

BotsIQ has an extensive network of local manufacturing and robotics companies to draw from for assistance, including 80 small- to medium-sized manufacturing companies that are part of the Pittsburgh Chapter National Tooling & Machining Association. BotsIQ is also a member of the Hazelwood-based Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute, which has more than 275 participating companies nationwide. RE2 Robotics and Aerotech, Inc. are two of the growing local companies that sent letters of support for the grant.

In 2005, local manufacturers and educators launched the BotsIQ curriculum at six area schools. Since then, more than 10,000 students have participated in its programs.

High school students have a different BotsIQ curriculum. What better way to grab kids’ attention than building robots that fight?

Working with teachers and mentors from the industry, BotsIQ high school students form teams to create 15-pound combat robots to battle each other competitively. Teams get points for their battles but also for their engineering documentation binders.

BotsIQ grad Don Doerfler from Plum High School went on to join Team HUGE, which recently competed on Discovery Channel’s TV show, “BattleBots.” The team’s robot has two giant wheels and a steel bar that strikes the vulnerable tops of other robots.

BotsIQ robots battling. Photo courtesy of BotsIQ.

Jonas Cramer is a 2017 Belle Vernon High School grad who was struggling with school and skipping classes until he got involved with BotsIQ. Cramer quickly discovered that he had a knack for the work, which led to a co-op opportunity with the BotsIQ industry advisor, Ductmate Industries, who hired him upon graduation. He’s now doing an apprenticeship in sheet metal work.

The need is great — much of the region’s skilled manufacturing workforce is reaching retirement age.

“Manufacturing has long been the backbone of America’s economy, helping to build the country’s middle class after World War II,” adds Conklin. “Now, in the midst of its fourth revolution, the industry is greatly in need of a workforce with advanced manufacturing and technological skills.”

Conklin cites a recent study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute indicating that manufacturers will need to fill 4.6 million jobs in the U.S. by 2028.

“More than two million of these jobs could remain unfilled due to lack of advanced technology skills, misconceptions about manufacturing jobs and the retirement of baby boomers,” says Conklin.