DOBSON — Surry Community College held the grand opening for its industrial automation lab Friday.
Three years in the making, the new facility will prepare students for manufacturing jobs, while also attracting companies who could use the lab to train employees.
“Training on this equipment is as real as it gets,” said Jason Randall, chairperson of SCC’s Engineering Technologies. “We’ve talked to a lot of people in the advanced manufacturing industry, and they’re looking for this sort of training on state-of-the-art equipment. Companies view this lab as an asset for relocating to this area.”
Randall’s vision for the lab developed during a visit to Davidson Community College, where he saw its cutting-edge learning lab. He spoke with the instructors of Davidson on how to bring similar technology to SCC. Then he proposed the idea to SCC’s advisory committee.
That’s when textile manufacturer Unifi made an intriguing offer.
“Would you be interested in a robot?” the company asked.
The answer was a “no-brainer,” said Randall.
Hence, Unifi donated a 6,000-pound robotic arm capable of lifting 100-pound bags up to 42 times per minute, kickstarting the creation of SCC’s new automation lab.
Afterward, other local industries donated five tractor-trailer loads of automation equipment, enhancing the facility. SCC faculty and students worked together to build the lab, spending more than 8,500 hours welding, cleaning and assembling its components.
From noon to 6 p.m. Friday, the general public was invited to see the lab in action as its centerpiece, the robotic arm, sorted, lifted and moved objects. At 3 p.m., SCC offered a special presentation, recognizing the businesses and individuals who made the automation lab possible.
SCC interim President Dr. James Reeves welcomed attendees to the event.
“I think the main thing I can emphasize is that we’re totally committed to renewing engineering and technical programs at Surry Community College,” he said.
Reeves then introduced Randall, who commented, “Today is a great day — for our students and for our partnership with the community. And it’s just the beginning.”
Randall explained that the lab will be used in many ways, such as electronic engineering, workforce development and continuing education.
“Having a facility like this available makes my job in economic development so much easier,” said Bobby Todd of the Yadkin County Chamber of Commerce, who stressed the lab proves the commitment of local communities and industries.
Todd Tucker of Surry County Economic Development agreed, elaborating on the lab’s economic development impact.
“We’re very fortunate in the Surry and Yadkin counties to have Surry Community College,” he praised.
Tucker suggested the endeavor will reap “the combination of education, industry, and the willingness of those two to work together.”
Marion Venable, executive director of the SCC Foundation, recognized Unifi for donating the robotics.
“Today we celebrate our partnership with Unifi,” she said. “Unifi has been an industrial anchor for this region since 1971.”
“Unifi began an international focus in the 1980s,” Venable continued, “and now provides global textile solutions at every level of the supply chain.”
Unifi’s Gene Doss, Smitty Williams and Dean Davis were on hand to accept the award.
“We want to thank you for this recognition,” said Doss, “and we want to thank Surry Community College for taking on the challenge of training the next generation of engineers.”
For the final part of the presentation, SCC Trustee Deidre Rogers thanked “all the business and industry partners who have made his exemplary industrial training facility possible.”
“With this addition, the college strengthens its commitment to train a well-prepared workforce,” she added, “a workforce upon which the future of this region will depend.”
Following the presentation, Randall elaborated on SCC’s intent to use the lab in industrial recruitment efforts.
The college recently received grants from the U.S. Department of Labor and Duke Energy to expand the lab’s training facility. The grants will be used to purchase smaller robots, which can be taken to companies for training employees on a smaller level.
“Our community needs this,” said Randall. “It’s really hurting.”
The facility already has helped create local jobs. For instance, the lab played a key role in Pittsburgh Glass Works’ decision to build an $85 million plant in Elkin, creating 260 jobs.
“We’re not just sitting around and saying, ‘This is the technology of yesterday,’ or, ‘Manufacturing is gone from the United States,’” said Randall. “If that were the case, then all these companies with advanced manufacturing would be gone.”
Instead, robotics help businesses keep costs down and, as a result, from moving offshore.
“When I first came out of some of my schooling, I saw these robots. I was intrigued, because it was technology. But at the same time, I was thinking, ‘Man, this is going to replace some people,’” he continued.
Based on developments from NAFTA and international trade, however, Randall “realized the only way we could compete is going to this type of advancement.”
“There are some people who are like, ‘Oh man, I hate robots. They take away jobs,’” he concluded. “But if it weren’t for them, more jobs would definitely travel offshore. They’re the only way we can stay competitive.”
Reach Josh Armstrong at email@example.com or at 719-1921.