EAU CLAIRE — Within large burgundy-colored metal cubicles, strong and nimble robotic arms deftly maneuver around and then poke welding tips to join two pieces of metal.
TVs outside the large booths display the computer language that is telling the robotic welders what to do at that very second.
They’re the latest additions to Chippewa Valley Technical College’s Manufacturing Education Center on Eau Claire’s north side.
Standing well out of the robots’ reach, CVTC students and faculty showed the newest wave of industrial technology to visitors during a Thursday afternoon open house event dubbed MECx at the college’s building on Alpine Drive.
Jeff Sullivan, CVTC’s dean of manufacturing and IT, said the college is looking to train workers on high-tech machinery that is expected to become increasingly used by companies in the Chippewa Valley.
“Our goal is to train about two years ahead,” Sullivan said.
Robotic welders are already found at some manufacturers in the area, he said, as one way to boost efficiency and cope with a worker shortage.
The increasingly complex machines need workers to tend them, program them, change parts and still know the foundational knowledge of welding, which are among the college’s offerings.
Andrew Hartman was among the CVTC students who were demonstrating what the machines could do during MECx.
He’d place a small slab of metal cut in the shape of a football helmet under a robotic welder arm before stepping back, pulling back a protective curtain and turning the machine on.
Following its orders, the machine welded the insignia of the Green Bay Packers on one side of the metal. After dipping the metal in water to cool, Hartman took the slab to another machine nearby that emblazoned the logo on the opposite side — creating a souvenir for one of the event’s attendees.
Hartman caught the welding bug when he was a high school freshman, getting a merit badge in it through Boy Scouts. He found he really enjoyed welding and continued it through more classes in high school, and he’s now in his second year of the program at CVTC. He’s hoping to secure a job welding either structural or stainless steel by graduation time.
The space where the robotic welders reside had previously been an outdoor courtyard. About 10,000 square feet were enclosed as an addition to the Manufacturing Education Center built through a recently completed referendum-funded $3 million project. In addition to adding robotic welders, the project also included laser cutting, 3-D printing, laser engravers and other high-tech equipment.
Elsewhere in the building, a machine built by a team of automation students used conveyor belts, pneumatics, cylinders, gripping arms, sensors and other devices to sort small bottles.
“It really does incorporate everything they learned,” said instructor Tyler Lindner.
Based on the red or black caps on the bottles, the machine will route them to different conveyors. Bottles without caps are sent to a chute where they drop into a reject bin.
Skills students learned by making and perfecting the machine would work in a variety of industrial manufacturing companies found in the Chippewa Valley, Lindner said. The program boasts an average starting salary of about $55,000 for graduates without prior experience in the field, he added.
In past years the college held its Manufacturing Day open house event in spring, but opted to change it to fall this year to coincide with the statewide celebration of Manufacturing Month.
Moving the event earlier also works better for current and prospective CVTC students who are weighing their options, Sullivan said.
CVTC students were able to make connections with over 45 employers at a career fair held in conjunction with MECx — months before they normally would when the event was held in spring. High school seniors who toured the facilities on Thursday also have time to consider CVTC’s programs before committing to a college.
“Our goal is to get them here to see what opportunities exist on our campus before they go to college,” Sullivan said.
Dakota Antczak, a sophomore from Fall Creek High School, toured the building on Thursday afternoon with his dad and a friend.
Antczak got a taste of several of CVTC’s programs during a summer course there and has found himself interested in the fields of automation and mechatronics.
“It’s that hands-on aspect,” he said about what appeals to him about those fields that use high-tech machinery.
In addition to Thursday’s event, CVTC will also have high school students touring its Manufacturing Education Center throughout the month.