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Grant helps Utah workers learn to operate robots

Published December 14, 2013 1:17 pm

State grant • Expanding operations increase demand for highly skilled workers at Autoliv airbag plants.
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Brigham City • While it might seem logical that robots doing repetitive tasks will replace the humans who once did that work, that does not appear to be the case at the Autoliv plant in this northern Utah town.

The colorful robots, which almost resemble something out of Star Wars, are allowing the company that manufacturers about 40 percent of the airbags sold to car companies in North America to increase its volume.

That, in turn, creates high-paying manufacturing jobs for a company that already employs 4,400 people in its four Utah plants and technical center.

The problem is that highly trained workers are needed to operate the robots, and the supply is having trouble meeting the demand.

That's why Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox joined Autoliv, Bridgerland Applied Technology College and the Department of Workforce Services officials along with students Thursday at Autoliv's Brigham City plant to celebrate a recent $174,560 grant given to the college to train people to use the robots.

According to Nic Dunn of Workforce Services, high-tech companies such as Autoliv are having a difficult time filling open jobs that require advanced skill sets. So, Utah state government created the Utah Cluster Acceleration Partnership to provide grant money to expand higher education programs in those fields.

Chad Campbell, vice president for finance at Bridgerland, said the Legislature also awarded the college a $200,000 appropriation this year.

That allowed Bridgerland ATC to purchase robotic arms.

"We can add to that and increase our capacity. They have more employees than students to fill the labor work force," said Ed Ball, Bridgerland's department head of Electronics and Industrial Automation.

Two of those students, Chad Harris of Wellsville and Rachel Johnson of Logan, toured the plant. Johnson said she hasn't set a career goal yet, but she has learned to operate Programmable Logic Controllers working with older robots at the school. Harris is nearly finished with a 13-month school program and is already receiving job offers.

Pete Rathjen, technical support leader for the Autoliv plant in Brigham City, said the company began using robots in 2004 and expanded that number to 162 before purchasing 60 of the larger ones. He said the machines create fewer ergonomic problems for employees because they are more efficient at repetitive tasks. They increase production of airbags while saving time and money.

"They allow us to be competitive in the market," he said.

Cox said state officials have challenged higher education leaders to think outside of the box to train people to work for companies that have abundant jobs for those with the right skills. He said some companies are struggling to find and train employees in the use of robotics.

That resulted in the collaboration among the state, technical colleges and private companies to train workers specifically for such jobs.

John Davidson, associate vice president for instruction at Bridgerland, said the college places 99 percent of its students in jobs, some of which have a high satisfaction rate and pay well.

"We have five new manufacturing lines added this year and five more next year," said Brian Hyde, the plant manager at Autoliv in Brigham City, who took the media and officials on a tour showing how robots are used along with humans to produce airbags. "What we do is save lives. We like to say that for every four years an employee works here, they save one life. I've been here for 20 years, so I figure I've saved five lives."


Twitter: @tribtomwharton






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