Somebody has to make the robots

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Somebody has to make the robots

Voice: March 2017

Evan Clark's students at Pine-Richland High School weren't even born when robots R2D2 and C-3PO were part of the main cast in the 1977 blockbuster movie "Star Wars."

The droids, or "humanoids," were science fiction then, but nearly 40 years later robots are a very real and growing part of U.S. and global manufacturing, not to mention Clark's advanced robotics and computer integrated manufacturing classes.

Those classes have now been enhanced further with a state-of-the-art robotic arm like the ones used in manufacturing.

The Pine-Richland School District, Allegheny County, has embraced robotics for years with great success; a team from the high school won the 2016 National Robotics League's national championship. Students have been learning on the VEX Robotics Design System that is geared for educational platforms, but the robotic arm provides training on real-world, cutting-edge technology.

 "Our students already had pretty good equipment, but the robotic arm simulates what is going on in the manufacturing world," Clark said. "It teaches them automation and how processes work together to make parts and do things without human contact. I tell the students, 'Robots don't go on breaks; they don't argue with their boss; they don't take coffee breaks; they lift heavy objects humans can't; and they can work in unsafe environments."'

That is not a plug for replacing humans with robots, he said. Just the opposite; it's pointing students into career opportunities.

Just like Luke Skywalker and others programmed R2D2 and C-3PO, all robots need to be designed and programmed for the jobs they are expected to do.

And that is exactly what Clark's students are doing with the robotic arm. Clark assigns them projects, and the students must figure out how to automate the arm to get the project done.

For example, the students have designed a coffee-dispensing machine using the arm, and a process for getting ketchup into small packages and containers such as those used in the fast-food and restaurant industry.

"Manufacturing jobs are changing. People have to build and program robots," Clark said. "More of these jobs are becoming available."