To reach students, manufacturers turn to killer robots

Area manufacturing leaders Steve Staub and Dan Griffith hope it will be a path to an enduring career.

Ohio Robotics Inc. is an endeavor led by Staub, Griffith, Miami Valley Career Technology Center educator Bryan Jackson and Neil Arthur, chief executive of local business consultant Arthur Associates LLC. Ohio Robotics recently gained 501(C)(3) status, making it an Ohio non-profit corporation.

The idea behind Ohio Robotics is simple: Encourage a student to channel creativity and problem-solving skills into making something real, and stand back. The group also wants to encourage year-round STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) initiatives.

Manufacturers have long needed younger workers. Older workers in the industry are approaching retirement age, and manufacturers need qualified youth.

“The average age of the worker in our industry is 53 years old,” said Staub, who heads Staub Manufacturing Solutions in Vandalia. “Which isn’t old by any means. But the problem is there is a huge gap of younger people in the industry.”

Many in manufacturing think they have a way to reach those younger people.

The robotics’ organization’s primary purpose is shepherding the Xtreme Bots competition, a twice-a-year contest that his held in the fall and spring in which students and the local manufacturers with whom they partner design and make small, mobile robots that fight in a cage.

Robots can be as big as the students design them, but they can’t weigh more than 15 pounds. Sparks fly, and the fights go on until one or both machines are destroyed or immobilized. The contests are double-elimination, encouraging students to troubleshoot and go on to the next battle.

Jackson says it’s education that feels like fun.

“Basically, you’re tearing up the other person’s robot,” he said. “That’s very motivational to high school students.”

“Robots are cool,” added Erik Nieves, technology director for Yaskawa Motoman, a robotics designer and manufacturer in Miamisburg. “You ask any interested student about this, and they’ll tell you: Robots are cool.”

Yaskawa Motoman announced a new STEM robotics platform in July, a device that allows students in engineering, industry and trade programs to learn about robotics. The machine can be configured for different course work and class layouts. The company also offers a welding education cell.

In the 14-county Dayton region, several thousand people retire from manufacturing positions each year, Staub said.

With their eye on the problem of aging workers, in 2006 Dave and Doris Dysinger donated $100,000 to what is now the Dayton Region Manufacturers Association to kick start what became “Xtreme ‘Bots.”

The DRMA looked for volunteers to head up the robots competition. “Steve (Staub) opened his mouth, and I followed suit and said, ‘We will,” Griffith, Dysinger Inc. president, recalled with a laugh.

The program is part of instruction today for trade, industry or machining classes at Miami Valley Career Technology Center, the Ponitz Center, Centerville and Kettering Fairmont high schools and elsewhere, Griffith said. Classes design robots with engineering software well before getting to the actual production of the robots.

“Almost all of them use some of the Bots program as part of their curriculum,” he said.

The next Xtreme Bots competition will be Nov. 2 at the Wright State University Nutter Center C.J. McLin gym. (Go to OhioRobotics.org for more information and to register by Oct. 18.)

“The event is cool,” Staub said. “But the kids get more out of it before they even get there.”

The manufacturing leaders also want to reach parents, Nieves said. They may have an outdated perception of what manufacturing means, he said.

Manufacturing in the 21st century is no longer the grungy, boring assembly-line job of yesteryear, Nieves said. It’s well-lit, clean and requires real skill, he said.

“Robotics is the skilled trade of the next century,” Nieves said.

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