Industry, education and government team up to put advanced manufacturing technology to work in West Virginia
Advanced manufacturing technology is a complex, evolving concept that is often simply defined as the use of innovative or cutting-edge technology to improve products or processes. It is the quest to produce faster, more cost-effectively higher performance materials, ahead of the rest. Advanced manufacturing technology gives companies – and countries – competitive advantages that build economic strength.
In West Virginia, teams of private industry, educational institutions and government agencies collaborate to apply the technologies and to supply workers who know how to use them.
Advanced manufacturing technology got its start in the automotive industry, where it continues to be a driving force. West Virginia’s auto sector reflects this same passion for constant improvement and rapid innovation.
Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia
Toyota introduced the Prius, the first mass-produced hybrid car in Japan, in 1997. That same year, Leah Curry began her career with Toyota as a team leader, working with robots on the production floor for Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Indiana. In the years since then, Toyota has advanced its hybrid technology while also exploring self-driving cars, developing the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle Mirai, rethinking the entire auto production process with Toyota’s New Global Architecture (TNGA) — and appointing Curry as president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia (TMMWV) in Buffalo, West Virginia.
The Buffalo plant has several achievements under its belt. The plant’s completion rates for transmissions and four-cylinder engines represent the fastest production times among Toyota’s global operations. TMMWV is the first Toyota plant outside of Japan to produce 10 million powertrains. Curry has called the West Virginia facility “the little engine plant that could.”
To ensure that the plant can continue to perform competitively well into the future, Toyota is investing $400 million to modernize the facility. The investment includes converting the six-speed transmission lines to eight-speed transmission lines and adding a hybrid transaxle product line to the facility. These hybrid transaxles will be the first built outside of Japan. The modernization initiative at the factory in West Virginia is tied to the new TNGA platform that aims for greater efficiency and lower costs.
Italian automotive component manufacturer Sogefi Group is geared for success — and accelerating. In 2004, Sogefi Group established a manufacturing plant in Prichard, West Virginia, the company’s first entry into North America. Today, Sogefi USA, Inc. manufactures oil, gasoline and diesel filters and engine air intake manifolds.
The West Virginia plant has kept up to speed with progress in manufacturing tools and processes. Sogefi uses advanced technology to enhance product quality, reduce costs and improve operational safety.
“Among the many methods we have to weld plastic, one of our newest techniques uses lasers,” said Troy Thomas, Sogefi plant manager. “Laser welding produces a higher-quality weld with less contamination and substantially less noise. It delivers both quality and safety advantages compared to other techniques.”
The West Virginia Sogefi plant has also found that digital cameras can click with manufacturing processes. Lower prices and standardized interfaces make high-tech, high-resolution digital cameras simpler, more cost-effective and practical for industrial work. The Sogefi plant increasingly uses digital cameras and analytical software to inspect product quality. The cameras can even be added to robots to give them “eyes.”
New Technology, New Skills, New Training Partners
Working with robots and other technology require that employees continually acquire new skills or upgrade their existing ones.
In 2012, Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia partnered with BridgeValley Community and Technical College to establish the Advanced Manufacturing Technician associate degree program. Students earn while they learn classroom fundamentals and get practical hands-on experience working in a modern manufacturing environment. West Virginia is the site of Toyota’s second U.S. Advanced Manufacturing Technology program.
For Sogefi, keeping engineers and technicians up-to-date on the rapid changes in robotics, electronics, PLCs (programmable logic controllers, a specialized computer to control machines and processes) is a priority. Developing these skills with its current employees creates opportunities to promote from within.
Sogefi has found training expertise and assistance through West Virginia programs such as the Governor’s Guaranteed Work Force Program. This program provides technical and financial training assistance so the state’s businesses can equip employees with the new or advanced skills needed to compete and win in the modern marketplace.
“We use the Governor’s Guaranteed Work Force Program every year to support our training needs. In the past year, we’ve trained dozens of employees on robotics programming, PLC programming, injection molding, and plastic welding technologies with costs partially offset by the program,” Thomas said. “The Governor’s Guaranteed Work Force is a great program and we really appreciate the support.”
Sogefi recently hired a participant from the RCBI Step Up for Women program. RCBI—the state’s nonprofit Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing—serves as a catalyst for innovation, economic development and job creation. Its clients range from sole proprietor startups to Fortune 500 corporations in the mid-Atlantic region. The organization provides general or customized technical training, workforce development and leased use of advanced manufacturing technology.
RCBI operates advanced manufacturing technology centers in Bridgeport, Huntington and Charleston. Each center has its own specialized focus.
The RCBI Bridgeport Center focuses on the aerospace, transportation, composites, government, and oil and gas markets. Bridgeport hosts the Composites Technology & Training Center, a project of RCBI and NASA.
RCBI Huntington concentrates on the biomedical, metal, energy, aerospace and education markets, as well as the emerging markets of 3D printing, prototyping and reverse engineering
RCBI in South Charleston primarily serves the metals, transportation and energy markets, as well as the emerging markets of 3D printing and robotics.
In addition, RCBI offers the Design Works lab where innovators can turn their concepts into three-dimensional reality through additive manufacturing (3D printing). The labs offer advanced 3D printers and specialized software.
RCBI has extended its technological helping hand to businesses in diverse industries:
- Orbital ATK, an aerospace and defense manufacturer, worked with RCBI to create a “next generation” prototype of a rocket motor nozzle assembly using Additive Manufacturing technology. Engineers from Orbital and RCBI created test pieces and produced them on a 3D printer.
- Walhonde Tools Inc., a designer and manufacturer of precision tube and pipe fitting tools for industries around the world, needed to produce new pipe alignment tooling for West Virginia’s growing oil and natural gas industry. RCBI assisted with engineering design and access to emerging technologies. The tool was machined at RCBI. Walhonde’s factory performed the final assembly.
New, High-Tech Manufacturing Resource in 2018
The Center for Excellence in Manufacturing Engineering (CEME) is a new technology/education resource expected to fully functional in 2018. CEME was established in Bluefield State College in 2016, supported by a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission POWER initiative.
“CEME is in the process of ordering equipment, including ABB/Fanuc industrial robots, Mazak Quick-turn Universal and five-axis Vertical Milling Centers, a Maxiem Jet Machining Center, high resolution 3D printer and more,” said CEME Executive Director Jeffrey McFadden.
The center has already received Sawyer, one of its two collaborative robots. Sawyer is designed to work near and interact safely with humans, without the inefficiencies of conventional robotics systems.
CEME’s mission is threefold:
- Provides technical support to local industries by developing courses to meet specific technical needs and by serving as a research and development arm, with collaborative robotics as its major research focus.
- Trains new workers and re-train displaced miners transitioning into manufacturing careers. The former miners often have foundations skills such as welding, equipment maintenance and installation, hydraulics, and computer controlled equipment that can be transferred to manufacturing. They will be able to acquire other needed skills such as computer programming and project management through Bluefield State College certificate programs.
- Offers the 2+2 Program, in which the student earns a two-year associate degree in one of the engineering programs offered through Bluefield’s School of Engineering Technology and Computer Science and spends an additional two years in Manufacturing Engineering Technology (MFGT) coursework.
In addition to the growing community of advanced technology companies and the support programs in West Virginia, manufacturers are attracted to the state by the same advantages that matter to other industries, such as West Virginia’s prime location within easy reach of major metropolitan areas up and down the Eastern U.S. and Canada. Discover more about West Virginia’s pro-growth tax climate, low cost of doing business and more. Visit www.westvirginia.gov.
Visit http://www.expansionsolutionsmagazine.com/west_virginia_ed for local economic development office directory listings.
Credit Line: Provided by the Center for Excellence in Manufacturing Engineering (CEME).