One of the unforeseen gifts that 2020 has given us is the ability to 'just get on with it'. While coronavirus has certainly made the face-to-face collaborations far trickier, it has also promoted online support that may previously have been overlooked.
For non-profit manufacturing workforce development program BotsIQ, a Pittsburgh-based 'pathway to career options in manufacturing' initiative that harnesses the experience of industry mentors and partners them with technically-impressive students, its schedule of factory tours, expert-led discussions and in-person sessions have had to be curbed, but its virtual events are more vibrant than ever.
BotsIQ was founded 16 years ago after many local manufacturers around southwestern Pennsylvania realized that the region was heading for a so-called 'Silver Tsunami', where there would be a shortage of skilled manufacturing employees as those retiring wouldn't have enough younger people to replace them. So the manufacturers got together with the Pittsburgh chapter of the NTMA (National Tooling & Manufacturing Association) and the BotsIQ manufacturing workforce development program was launched.
Connecting students with manufacturing
Maria Campieri, Youth Services Manager at BotsIQ, explains, ““BotsIQ partners with 60 high schools across southwestern Pennsylvania. Through our program, students gain in-demand technical skills needed for a rewarding STEM - science, technology, engineering and mathematics – career. Examples of these skills are: mechanical and electrical engineering, Computer Aided Design, and machining. Each school is partnered with a local manufacturer to advise and educate students. Students are required to conduct professional career interviews and tour their industry partner which provides an up-close and personal look into manufacturing and the careers available. This school year, BotsIQ had to think of creative ways to continue connecting industry and education.”
The robotics competition is at the heart of BotsIQ, serving as a useful focal point on which to hang all the necessary skills, training and education that BotsIQ is harnessing alongside its industry partners. Donora-based plastic packaging manufacturer RETAL is one of the 20-plus Pittsburgh businesses that has happily committed to supporting BotsIQ, with its team inspired by the association's appreciation on hands-on learning and the push to highlight STEM careers.
RETAL's HR manager Elizabeth Giecek shares how the global company decided to work with BotsIQ, saying, 'It can be hard to take on a monetary sponsorship, especially at a time when budgets are tight and there can be little practical benefit, but with BotsIQ we saw the most incredible potential for both us and the students thanks to our investment of time and skills. By getting involved, we're sharing our expertise with a community-friendly program that helps to connect us with students that are interested in STEM careers, and we get to be inspired by their motivation.”
Giecek goes on to explain how the local community is a wealth of opportunity for global businesses like RETAL, which operates 19 factories worldwide, with its Donora factory the latest. She says, “Partnering with BotsIQ is one of our community and sustainability initiatives, which also includes supporting clean up operations and buying renewable energy from a sustainability perspective and helps create potential employment opportunities. We're a tight-knit team and we could see that we could bring value to the program through careers advice, working with the designers to develop the robots, taking virtual tours to learn more about production...it's very varied.”
Robots in disguise
It is this varied approach that characterizes the BotsIQ program; while it is pinned on the final 'robot battle’ competition that sees the high schools compete against each other, it is the fact that every element of creating the robot is the students' responsibility that ensures its holistic nature. Campieri adds, “BotsIQ is an educational workforce development program disguised as a robotics competition! The students build a 15lb robot and gearing up for the final competition, but as they lead up to that, they’re responsible for research and design, machining, assembly, testing and repairing the Bot. In addition, students develop a project schedule, a safety plan, responsible for accounting of their budget and fundraising efforts, creating a marketing plan, sketch design and drawings, prototype models, manufacturing of materials and inspection of parts. Drive and power assembly along with testing and repair...it all mimics industry, and they're doing it with the support of companies like RETAL, who give their time and expertise.”
Each program is a year long, running alongside the academic year, so the 2020-2021 school year students have had to pivot in the same way that the manufacturing industry has during this crazy year. Giecek notes, “Of course we've not been able to hold the factory tours and the one-to-one coaching that we'd like to with the engineers, but we've been able to come up with new ideas and see what works. It's been interesting to see how we can create the same message virtually; it seems to be in the spirit of BotsIQ to make things work!”
With many of the BotsIQ events – including the robot competition finale – live on YouTube and live-streamed on the BotsIQ website, even students that are not part of the program can watch and be inspired, perhaps even signing up themselves. And it's inspiring for the manufacturing businesses too, especially as the 'Silver Tsunami' can mean that those who are currently mentoring may themselves soon be retiring. RETAL's Giecek concludes, “We love being part of a program that not only inspires the next generation of potential plastic packaging manufacturers but also challenges those of us that are currently working in the industry. Manufacturing doesn't stand still, so by working closely with these highly motivated young students we can learn from them too. BotsIQ is a terrific initiative and we're proud to be a part of it.”