Lucas Yetter needed help. The 120-pound fighting robot with a 22-pound blade spinning 50 revolutions-per-second wasn't going to survive without serious armor.
The AR450 steel he and fellow Granite Bay High School students found is fit for tanks. They went to shop after specialty shop until finding Mike O'Connor, a machinist in Rocklin.
That chance meeting launched the Sierra College Robotics Club's success; the training and creation of Computer Numerical Control (CNC) programs and machines at Hacker Lab; and help the Club take home a second-place global victory over the last year.
As part of Hacker Lab’s new class packs discounts program, offering classes in bulk to help members level-up, Hacker Lab is featuring stories on the people and groups that make Hacker Lab special.
“Some kids came into our shop. My boss said, help these guys,” O'Connor, 55, recalled, wanting to help advance their education.
CNC machinists, technical designers and industrial mechanics make up a growing employment field in the Sacramento region. With few manufacturing technology programs at high schools in the area, Hacker Lab, Sierra College and Sac City College are working to fill the voids in employment.
“From an education standpoint, given the demand out there, education just can’t meet the demands these days,” said Dean Peckham, executive director of the Sacramento Valley Manufacturers Initiative, a nonprofit coalition of the region's manufacturers that is offering a new, free training program. “Just about any manufacturer in machining will tell you there's a demand.”
The training program's deadline is this Sunday, June 30th, and will prepare 20 students for an entry-level position in a machine shop. Candidates completing the program will go through an interview and hiring process with employers at the end of instruction. Successful graduates can also receive college credit.
The robot Yetter and other students built went on to take second or third against the reigning champ at RoboGames in San Mateo.
Yetter, in turn, went to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps. When he returned to attend college, he went back to the robotics he loved. He became president of the Sierra College club and started recruiting.
O'Connor had gone back to school, too, wanting to upgrade his skills. Taking the same class as Yetter and Ray Atnip, O'Connor stuck his hand up and said he'd helped some students 12 years ago. The very same students Yetter was with.
O'Connor and Atnip helped set-up the Tormach CNC machine used at Hacker Lab Powered by Sierra College. O'Connor taught the Mechatronics sstudents to use it, while they helped him with electronics, all as members of the club.
The lathe; pipe-bending, CNC, welding, part creation — O'Connor and Yetter shared the belief that students should learn how to use these tools. As a club working inside Hacker Lab and with meetings at Sierra, the team made custom-made, strong chassis that needed milled precision and particular welding for high-strength chromoly metal, the same used by aircraft manufacturers.
Together, they made robots that won a 2nd-place global award for autonomous firefighting; battle robots for statewide competitions
“Mike was invaluable. We could not have done it without him,” Yetter said.
Now, Yetter works for a company that uses autonomous equipment and robotic arms to assist manufacturing. While some believe autonomous manufacturing will eliminate jobs, Yetter says he was offered his job on the spot because he had learned tech and engineering, mill work and mechanical manufacturing.
“There are jobs like mine everywhere. Not only can I program a microcontroller and wire up a circuit board, I can also manufacture all the metal parts to make it happen,” Yetter said. “Those skills are more necessary now with automation. You can either outsource the parts or you can make them yourself … We need to be able to to compete with countries with cheaper labor. This creates jobs.”
“We need people who can fix the automated equipment and make parts for it — not just lift a box and stack it,” Yetter added.
Meeting future needs
The Centers of Excellence (CoE) provide labor market research for community colleges in California. Aaron Wilcher, who leads the North/Far North region, saidmaintenance and repair would be particularly high-value job skills for graduates.
According to a 2018 CoE report, there were 41,000 jobs in regional manufacturing and 10,000 jobs posted in the region last year. The Sacramento region has over 2,700 manufacturers. Sixty percent of U.S. Manufacturing employers have enormous challenges recruiting and hiring skilled workers.
According to a 2017 CoE study of regional employers of machinists and CNC operators, over the following three years, 136 CNC positions (an increase of 42 percent) and 93 machinists (22 percent more) were expected.
Wilcher also shared a June 19, 2019 report from Georgetown University saying that nationwide, the latest data shows that “upskilling” is the latest ground for employment. While manufacturing overall may see a 2 percent drop over the next decade (253,000 jobs), increases in jobs will take place in high-skilled learners. Workers with bachelor's degrees greatly increased from 2.8 million in 1991 to 3.6 million in 2016.
Sierra College, Sac City and Hacker Lab can help students get there.
Hacker Lab offers regular CNC classes (https://sacramento.hackerlab.org/en/events), with an emphasis on machining and manufacturing at Hacker Lab's facility in Rancho Cordova, led in part by Mike Bell, Deputy Sector Navigator for Advanced Manufacturing in the Sacramento Region for California Community Colleges.
Bell and Peckham are offering the training program to assist such demands, funded through a grant by the Capital Region Small Business Development Center (https://www.capitalregionsbdc.com/).
“It's free of charge to the students — the goal is to recruit manufacturers that will hire people in the region,” Peckham said. “We want people with initiative, a willingness to learn and who like to work with their hands so we can give a pathway for continuing education.”