Nearly three years ago, executives from BMW's manufacturing plant in Spartanburg, SC spoke with Dave Just to address how Spartanburg Community College could better serve its local manufacturing industry.
“Essentially, they needed mechatronic technicians,” says Just, vice president of corporate and community education. “They said colleges were using outdated curriculum and equipment and that to better serve the local industry, they really needed to be updated to focus on advanced technology like mechatronics.”
In response, this September a consortium of technical colleges in South Carolina will launch a new advanced technology degree program in mechatronics.
Mechatronics is an interdisciplinary engineering field that encompasses embedded control, electronics, software engineering and mechanical systems which can integrate product design and automated manufacturing processes. Because industrial applications are becoming more complex and involve more complicated technologies, industries need technicians with skills that span several engineering disciplines.
The colleges which make up the consortium are: Greenville Technical College, Piedmont Technical College, Spartanburg Community College, Tri-County Technical College and York Technical College. All are located in upstate South Carolina where typical manufacturing jobs are turning to high-tech engineers and technicians.
They are working in a collaboration called TechReadySC, developed with a $2.5 million grant from AdvanceSC, the foundational arm of Duke Energy. As part of the new program, the five colleges will use the same standardized curriculum that meets industry standards. Students are also trained on the same state-of-the-art mechatronics' equipment from suppliers including Kuka Robot Group, Festo U.S. Learning Systems and Siemens.
Under the program, all five colleges will offer the same degree and curriculum, allowing students to transfer colleges as a way to ensure the upstate economy will see a strong turnout of mechatronic technicians.
BMW helped identify a need for more mechatronic technicians and TechReadySC has several business partners that helped shape this program: AdvanceSC, Bosch, Fujifilm and Tyco. There are no formal agreements or guarantee any of these students will be given a job while in school or after graduation, according to Just.
Just says 95 percent of the BMW plant is robotic. “You have to have people who know how to maintain and run robots — you need people who have a high-level skill set,” he says.
Earlier this year, BMW Manufacturing announced it would expand and invest $750,000 to build a new 1.2-million-sq-ft assembly facility adjacent to the 1,150-acre campus's original factory. This building will accommodate the next-generation BMW X3 Sports Activity Vehicle. With completion of this construction, BMW's total investment in South Carolina is nearly $4.4 billion.
John Davidson worked at Spartanburg's BMW plant before joining Greenville Tech as a mechatronics instructor and has been preparing the new program. He says earning a two-year technical degree in mechatronics can turn into a lucrative career for graduates.
“You can make $15 to $22 an hour to start and with some experience they can make more,” says Davidson. “Sometimes these graduates can make more than what someone with a four-year degree can make.”
Davidson, who has an associates degree in electrical engineering, worked at BMW for eight years, first as a maintenance technician and later as a manager. He says industrial technology has changed so much that students need to know how electrical, mechanical and software work together.
He says it's important students learn all the disciplines because today's job opportunities are all about integration.
“You need to have all these skills — this is what the industry wants,” says Davidson.