Byron Clayton comes to the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute from Baton Rouge, La. Photo courtesy ARM Institute.

Byron Clayton was content living in Louisiana and running Research Park Corporation, a tech-focused economic development organization. But an opportunity in Pittsburgh arose, reminding him of his passion for robotics.

His first job, many years before, was running the robotics painting lab for Cybotech in Indianapolis, a corporation that no longer exists.

“I wanted to get back to robotics. This is an exciting time for American manufacturing,” says Clayton, the new CEO of the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute. “I have to tell you, there are a lot of shocked people in Baton Rouge because I was really comfortable and had talked about how I was never going to go back to the snow again.”

Yet, with a weekend snowstorm brewing at the end of his first work week, Clayton, who grew up in Cleveland, was eagerly settling into the new job at ARM, the institute founded at Carnegie Mellon University a year ago with an $80 million federal grant. He has been researching neighborhoods where he and his wife Yvette can buy a home after she sells their house in the South and relocates her company, which trains youth in soft business skills.

With its burgeoning robotics industry, Pittsburgh can revitalize American manufacturing, says Clayton. The institute — a partnership among industry, government and academia — is affiliated with but separate from the university. Part of the Manufacturing USA network, ARM is supported by an additional $173 million in commitments from more than 120 members and partners.

“It’s an amazing thing that’s going on here,” Clayton says. “The idea is, we are at the center of tackling some of the barriers that have prevented American manufacturers from utilizing technology.”

Advanced robotics, says Farnam Jahanian, interim president of Carnegie Mellon and a member of the ARM board of directors, “has the potential to transform the entire manufacturing sector, and ARM is poised to provide global leadership in this historic shift.”

The board chose Clayton, Jahanian says, because he has “the leadership and the experience to help fulfill the vision for the institute.” In 2019, ARM will become the lead tenant at Mill 19 at Hazelwood Green, a planned hub for advanced manufacturing.

At the most basic level, it’s important to convince manufacturers to invest in robotics and to ease that transition because automation can drive down manufacturing costs, Clayton says. But companies also need workers who can build, implement and maintain robots.

People can learn the necessary skills — programming, mechanics and application skills such as painting, welding and assembly — while in high school, at a community college or a four-year college, he says.

“Robots and workers have to work together — one can’t succeed without the other,” says Clayton. “So, we’re here to help manufacturers overcome these barriers to adopting more robots in their manufacturing. That’s what’s going to make us competitive with the rest of the world.”

With a goal of accelerating both robotics technology and high-value manufacturing careers, ARM asked its members to identify areas that need to be addressed, he says. A June 2017 survey of small and medium-sized manufacturers in western Pennsylvania revealed consistent “workforce challenges,” including a skills gap arising from emerging technology.

As a result, Clayton hopes to encourage ARM’s members and partners to place more apprentices at manufacturers.

Oberg Industries in Freeport, for example, which manufacturers precision components and tooling, has a successful apprenticeship program, he says. Though ARM won’t announce for several weeks the companies that will take part in its apprenticeship project, Pittsburgh has quite a few robotics startups, including RE2 Robotics, IAM Robotics, Titan Robotics, HEBI Robotics and CapSen Robotics.

It’s an ambitious start to ARM’s second year of operation.

“The idea is to start to make an impact,” says Clayton. “It’s really reaching out to manufacturers to learn more about what their challenges are. We want to hear from them, to talk about what their needs are, what we can help them with, what keeps them up at night, and how can we bring more manufacturing jobs to the U.S.”

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.