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North Central Michigan College adopts Mobile Education Centers

Students at North Central Michigan College will have access to the “CNC” Digital Fab Lab, a sophisticated mobile educational outreach trailer that gives students hands-on training to attain highly specialized manufacturing jobs.
University Business, March 2015

While some students in rural communities may have difficulty obtaining access to educational options close to home, students in northern Michigan will have a new opportunity to study CNC programming. This fall North Central Michigan College will implement the “CNC” Digital Fab Lab, a sophisticated mobile educational outreach trailer that gives students hands-on training to attain highly specialized manufacturing jobs.

The computer numerical controlled (CNC) Fab Lab is a 44-foot self-contained classroom produced by Triune Specialty Trailers in Madison Heights, Michigan. It expands to 430 square feet of floor space and has 13 state-of-the-art computer stations including one instructor station with a smart board. Each station has computer-aided design (CAD) and manufacturing (CAM) software programs to control the CNC mill and lathe. These sophisticated features provide students with the critical skills needed to work in the CNC operating and programming field.

The Fab Lab allows students to connect programming software through an automated CNC mill and lathe to create a virtually unlimited number of objects. The CNC mill is used as a drill to grind into objects and the CNC lathe is used for shaping the material by rotating the objects.

The idea for the Fab Lab came when members of the Northern Lakes Economic Alliance (NLEA) and I were evaluating manufacturing businesses in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula. As part of our economic development program, we made retention visits and provided growth consultation to various companies. During these visits, we observed a recurring problem: the urgent need for more CNC programmers and operators for manufacturing businesses.

By using the Fab Lab, our goals to address work force training are accomplished with both short and long-term solutions. As a short-term solution, manufacturers will save money and time by providing specified training courses to their employees conveniently in their parking lots. And, by having high schools and colleges utilize the Fab Lab, they are cultivating a new generation of skilled and qualified CNC workers.

Triune Specialty Trailers modeled the complex, functional mobile learning center after a CNC lab operating in Wisconsin. After its completion, a manufacturing advisory team chose North Central Michigan College to operate and maintain the mobile classroom. The advisory team, which includes manufacturing companies, educators and organizations such as the NLEA, is responsible for ensuring local manufacturers’ needs are met with Fab Lab. The main objective for North Central Michigan College is to become more responsive to the local business community needs, specifically in manufacturing. This collaboration enables us to ensure students are learning the proper skills to fulfill these high-paying specialized manufacturing jobs.

The Fab Lab will be integrated into the school’s curriculum for the first time this fall. There are two levels of certification a student can achieve:

  • CNC 1 qualifies students for an entry level CNC job
  • CNC 2 provides a nationally recognized CNC certification and qualifies students for a more advanced, higher paying CNC job. Students will have the chance to be exposed to the general background of computerized manufacturing and have the opportunity to move forward with more specialized classes.

With the Fab Lab’s ability to travel anywhere, we will also provide training and insight to students and other community members throughout Michigan. Training for 11th and 12th grade students will be offered. Middle school students will get the opportunity to explore possible careers in manufacturing. Recent tours of Fab Lab have generated positive feedback, strong support and an increased interest in our mission. That said, we are looking forward to a successful first run at North Central Michigan College.

This innovative learning tool not only exposes students to manufacturing careers, it gives them hands-on experience in preparation for those jobs. We believe the Fab Lab will help re-shape the way students learn and give them a dynamic education that encourages job growth.

Tom Erhart has been the Entrepreneurship Director at Northern Lakes Economic Alliance since 2010. He provides assistance and resources to entrepreneurs and existing businesses related to job creation and economic growth. Erhart also serves on the manufacturing advisory board for the CNC Digital Fab Lab for North Central Michigan College.

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