RENO, Nev. — A Star Wars droid-like robot roams the linoleum floor, delivering steel parts from one conveyor to another. Robotic arms — constructing products with metals — clamp, swivel, release, repeat.
No, this isn’t the inner-workings of Tesla’s massive Gigafactory 1, planted inside the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, where electric batteries and Model 3 motors are manufactured.
This automation activity is happening on a much smaller scale, but, arguably, for a much bigger purpose.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon inside Truckee Meadows Community College’s new advanced manufacturing lab, located at the TMCC Applied Technology Center on Edison Way in Reno, which is humming along during a demonstration.
The lab is proof TMCC is doubling down on efforts to prepare the Nevada workforce for openings at Tesla and many other companies playing a robot-centric role in the state’s booming advanced manufacturing sector, says Dr. Kyle Dalpe, TMCC dean of technical sciences.
“With the diversifying economy, we are responding to the businesses that are moving here, most of which is in the advanced manufacturing sector,” Dalpe told the NNBV, as buzzing robots stayed busy nearby. “It is the new wave of what’s coming. It’s fun to be ahead of it and not behind it, so students can go out the door and get some of these great jobs that are emerging in our region.”
Manufacturing sector a key area of growth for 2019 — AND BEYOND
All told, manufacturing is the fastest-growing industry in the Silver State, swelling by 13.8 percent from October 2017 to October 2018, according to the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, and the industry saw an influx of 6,500 jobs over that span. Only construction saw higher job growth at 7,700.
DETR also reports that the average salary in manufacturing in 2016 was around $50,000, with the highest earnings being roughly $78,000 a year.
Citing the National Skills Coalition, Dalpe pointed out that 51 percent of Nevada’s labor market is made up of middle-skill jobs, which require education beyond high school but not a four-year degree. From 2014-2024, NCS projects that 48 percent of the job openings in Nevada will be middle-skill.
“We went through 20 years of everybody needs an MBA or everybody needs to go to law school or get a four-year degree,” Dalpe said in a follow-up phone interview. “The economy’s swung around. It’s letting everybody explore options, especially the high school populations. They can make some pretty decent wages over time with what I would call minimal training — some of it’s 18 months, some of it’s two years, some of it’s six months and then they come back and train up to a higher level.”
COMPANIES LIKE TESLA ARE TAKING NOTICE
Inside TMCC’s $775,000 Cyber-Physical Factory lab, students use scaled down, simulated factory processes — from drilling to thermal station to press — to manufacture a mock product in a completely automated environment.
Dalpe said TMCC will integrate the new equipment into existing Associate Degree programs and is currently developing new programs in Cyber-Physical Manufacturing slated for Fall 2019.
“We have been for years responding to the state economic development plan,” said Dalpe, noting that TMCC has grown its advanced manufacturing program from a mere 75 students to a whopping 550 students in two years. “So when major employers come to the region, they start talking about what they need for a workforce and we respond.
“We would never create a program that doesn’t have a job for a student. And we’re definitely seeing thousand of jobs in the local area (in this sector).”
Companies like Tesla are excited to see a workforce pipeline for the region’s burgeoning industry being built by institutions like TMCC.
“It’s increasing students’ confidence so that they can start a career in automation or robotics and have a much wider understanding of the fundamentals of that industry even before they walk in the door,” said Chris Reilly, Tesla’s workforce development and education programs director.
Currently, the Gigfactory has roughly 7,000 workers, and is projected to employ 20,000 at its full 5.8-million-square-foot build-out.
“We often see team members who are incredibly passionate about Telsa’s mission to accelerate the world’s transition to a sustainable energy future,” Reilly continued. “And now by having this program in our community, this helps also give individuals who have that passion the technical skills to succeed at the Gigafactory.”
UNR playing a big role
The University of Nevada, Reno has built a partnership with TMCC to help build that pipeline, said Dr. Leon Liao, assistant professor at UNR’s department of mechanical engineering.
UNR’s College of Engineering this fall launched a manufacturing quality minor to train students to become “skilled in quality control and assurance to certify product quality and durability throughout each step of the manufacturing process,” according to the university’s website.
“When Tesla came here, we worked with them to build up connections,” Liao told the NNBV. “They said they need people that know mechanical engineering, manufacturing and quality control. So it will definitely help them hire more people — our students can easily find a good job.”
In addition, four years ago, UNR opened an advanced manufacturing and materials processing lab under the direction of Dr. Liao.
Standing inside the lab, Bo Mao, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering, excitedly pointed out the equipment he gets to use for his research. This ranges from an ultrasonic welder, which uses vibration and friction (as opposed to heat) to weld materials together, to an inkjet printer designed to print supercapacitors, which bridge the gap between electrolytic capacitors and rechargeable batteries.
“I think it enables us to explore the chances and opportunities of the next generation of manufacturing,” Mao said of the lab. “Like inkjet printing, which enables us to fabricate and customize electronics. And the welding techniques enables us to improve the current manufacturing level of the industry.”
Liao feels the industry is going to continue to expand in the Reno area and has potential to be an advanced manufacturing hub for companies headquartered in Silicon Valley.
“They don’t have the big spaces and it’s too expensive over there,” he said of the Bay Area. “But Reno is going to be a good place for them to produce their products that’s close enough to Silicon Valley, but outside of California — just like Tesla.”
Encompassing UNR’s dedication to set up Northern Nevada as a western hub of manufacturing, the university in late October broke ground on a new 100,000-square-foot building for the College of Engineering, the fastest-growing college at UNR.
The new William N. Pennington Engineering Building, a near $92 million project, will house more than 40 faculty offices, 150 graduate student work stations, more than 40 laboratories, a large-scale computer lab, a 200-student classroom and more.