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Robotic welding added to Sauk curriculum

Equipment also expands opportunities for electronics students

DIXON – Welding students at Sauk Valley Community College won't have to wonder whether prospective employers will put them through robotic welding training. That will be taken care of right on campus.

The college invested in a robotic welder from Lincoln Electric, so that students can be trained to set up the equipment, program it, and use it for arc welding.

“If they’re really lucky, the place where they’re working will put them through some robotic welding training,” said Roxanne Finneran who, along with Scott Gillihan, teaches welding at Sauk. “But how much nicer is it for a business to have someone who’s already trained on it?”

As a bonus, electronics students studying programmable controllers and robotics under associate professor Steve McPherson will get more thorough training. The robot’s controller uses a program different from others already used in his courses.

“This is a wonderful piece for us to be using,” McPherson said. “It allows us to have different types of programming methods used in the class. It’s one more method.”

He's already incorporating it into his curriculum, and a robotic welding course, for which enrollment is open, begins in 8 weeks.

Robotic welding's role has expanded with companies both big and small. It’s a mainstay in the automotive industry and others involving mass production. By 2005, about half of the 120,000 robots used in North American industry were used for welding.

“A lot of places have them, it’s just a matter of to what extent,” Gillihan said. “For example, John Deere uses them a lot, but they also use manual welders, because you’ll get to a certain spot where a robot can’t reach.”

There’s a piece of good news tucked in that statement: Human welders will always have a place in the industry.

"Some people are worried that robotics will eliminate jobs, but it won't," said Jon Mandrell, Sauk's vice president. "You'll always need people to program it, operate it and maintain it.

This equipment just allows us to be more efficient and precise.”

He said the college is eager to take advantage of the opportunity to train local companies' workers at Sauk, and said anyone who'd like to see "cutting-edge technology" should visit campus.

“It allows us to not only take care of our students, but it also lets us customize training for local industry,” he said.

Mandrell is also excited that the welder is mobile, making it an even better recruiting tool.

"Cutting-edge technology is typically about 3 years ahead of the industry, so we're preparing students for when that technology hits the floor of the industry," he said.

He said Sauk researched and landed at least two grants to buy the welder, leaving the cost to the college just a "minor use of institutional funds."

Gillihan worked in Oklahoma as a welder, then 15 years at Northwestern Steel & Wire Co. (until it closed) before working in Rockford for more than 3 years. Then he got into teaching to pay his passion forward.

“I enjoy it, and this field has always been good to me,” he said. “It’s always put food on my table, and not every kid wants to go on to college and get a 4-year degree.”

Gillihan has taught at the college for 10 years – in fact, he was Finneran’s instructor back in 2008. She went on to work with various companies for about 5 years before applying for an opening with the school.

They’ll post job openings on a bulletin board, and set up companies to present to the students, but word of mouth goes a long way in terms of keeping up enrollment.

“A lot of people know a friend who, when they came out of here, they got a welding job,” Gillihan said. “We’re not a job service, but there are a lot of people who get jobs out of these classes,” Gillihan said.

The instructors spent a week last summer in Ohio getting trained on the robotic welder, and Finneran is confident kids will pick up the skill quickly – by comparison.

“All kids are so much more computer-literate than Scott and I are,” she said. “I think they’re going to pick it up much faster than we did. They’re going to get their hands on that controller, and they’ll be just fine.”

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