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Meeting the Skills Challenge

Advanced manufacturing training centre of excellence, Dundalk, Ireland

Two years of hard campaigning for cutting edge manufacturing training has paid off as the newly established Advanced Manufacturing Training Centre of Excellence located in Dundalk, Ireland, prepares to welcome its first students on site in September 2021. Michael McGrath Director explains what the centre will be doing and the essential role of its partnership with KUKA Robotics.

The challenge of training technical skills is not new, in Ireland or any other advanced industrial economy. The Louth Meath Education and Training Board (LMETB) Advanced Manufacturing Training Centre of Excellence (AMTCE) in Dundalk has been established to do exactly what its name says, across a range of sectors and activities. It has taken a 10-year lease on a 55,000 sq ft (5110 sq m) building owned by the Irish Development Agency in the Xerox Technology Park that was vacated by Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, which has relocated its activities to a laboratory in Croatia.

“When we committed to this building shortly before Christmas 2020, it was the culmination of a two-year campaign of lobbying, raising finance and putting in place the necessary support from the government and from industry, headed by Martin O’Brien, LMETB Chief Executive,” says Michael McGrath, Director, who came on board specifically to run the AMTCE project. Irish Government grant funding of EU4.5 million is part of the EU28 million Brexit stimulus package and EU 17 million Border Enterprise Development. There is also support from Northern Ireland, from the Portview Enterprise Centre in East Belfast.

A first in Ireland

The AMTCE is the first such establishment in the Republic of Ireland. Previously, employees and younger learners seeking to develop advanced skills in areas such as robotics, augmented reality (AR), automated visual inspection systems, 3D printing, and computer aided manufacturing had to travel to other countries to do so; typically, to facilities in Germany or the United Kingdom. 

The AMTCE was initially intended to take in 1,600 trainees in 2021, across a range of courses.  The site had been intended to open in early 2021; this was delayed by measures taken in response to the Covid-19 emergency. Some activities have already started, with self-directed online learning and trainer led virtual classrooms, while the premises are being modified and refurbished to meet the needs of the AMTCE, including building workshops and laboratory facilities. Initial onsite courses will be available from September 2021.

Traditional and contemporary skills

“The interior space is being reconfigured to allow us to deliver a fairly wide range of courses that are relevant in the context of industry on the Island of Ireland ,” McGrath says. “These courses will be related to robotics, cobotics and robotic processes.” For example, the AMTCE will offer a continuum of courses, starting with virtual reality training to help students acquire the basic hand skills and ‘muscle memory’ needed for welding, which will enable them to work safely when they move on to traditional MiG, TiG and rod welding, and progressing over a period to robotic welding skills.

“We will also have traditional workshop facilities for the teaching of milling, bending, forming, cutting, heat treatment processes and so on, with an emphasis on engineering and a focus on accuracy and precision,” he explains. “We have CAD labs on site as well, which means that students will be able to spend time designing pieces before putting it onto the CNC machines. We will also have a number of multi-material routers and precision metrology equipment in the same area.”

The word “student” tends to prompt an image of a young person, a recent school graduate, but AMTCE’s offer goes beyond first-level basic training. It is a lifelong learning facility, offering upskilling and reskilling for adults, as required and as appropriate for the engineering and manufacturing community on the Island of Ireland. There is a strong need for skilled welders and this is a priority for the Centre.

A range of courses and teaching methods

“There is a severe shortage of skilled welders in Ireland,” McGrath explains. The need means that the AMTCE has deliberately produced a strong welding training facility. In addition to its seven robotic welding cells, it has 18 ‘educate’ cells; four cobot cells; as well as two machining robots. KUKA has supplied all 31 complete robot cells.

“Initially, we were talking to several vendors with a view to running a 10-week robotic welding course but, given the high demand for welders, we found that there might be some difficulty populating it,” he continues. “There is a 16-week national certified welding course taking people up from novice to a reasonable level of skill and the suggested 10-week course would have essentially cannibalised that.”

After discussions with engineering companies, employers and vendors, the AMTCE determined on a range of courses, running from five days to 10-weeks, building to a comprehensive 26 weeks of linked, coherent training.

“We’re looking to run short, specific courses on traditional welding and robotic welding as well as linking with KUKA’s five-day courses for experienced people seeking to upskill to robotic welding, for example,” says McGrath. The VR/AR training and Future Rooms, AI (artificial intelligence) Chatbot personalised distance learning, eLearning, the MyKademy web-based virtual classroom, community hub and CRM learning management tool all adds up to what the Centre is calling the AMTCE 360O Learning Solution.

KUKA Cell4 concepts

KUKA robots feature heavily in the on-site learning and teaching resources, with a total of 31 KUKA robot cells. The “Cell4” concept cells being installed in AMTCE are a range of compact, portable cells on a base frame that can be adapted or preconfigured to a broad spectrum of applications. The KUKA cell4_Arc units are preconfigured MiG/MAG cells, delivered ready for operation and typical of the kind of cells that students will be using in contemporary factories.

As in commercial settings, the Cell4_Arc cells are configured with the range of standard packages for steel and aluminium welding, including torch cleaning systems and Fronius TPS 320i to 500i FE, and TPS 400i AL and 500i AL welding systems and for various production volumes. The standard cell dimensions of 8120mm x 3010mm x 3020mm height can accommodate single or dual KR Cybertech robots within compact dimensions; again, as used in the ‘real world’ of industry, where space is often at a premium.

Partners in education, training and development

Why opt for KUKA robots?

“The AMTCE considered a number of vendors and there were a few considerations that led to us choosing KUKA,” McGrath says. The selection involved an open EU Tender process; KUKA was selected ahead of several competitors, with a bid that was both technically compliant and offered best commercial value. Its main Republic of Ireland facility is located just a few miles from AMTCE.  “That proximity makes it very easy to engage with them. They can provide a strong level of support, which is key in developing a partnership model, and we wanted something more than just a vendor-customer relationship. They are able to adapt to our needs, too.”

“KUKA has a training facility in Dundalk, as well,” McGrath continues. “which offer training on their premises, they have people who are experienced at delivery and they are clearly committed to the value of education.”

The Louth Meath Education Training Board Advanced Manufacturing Training Centre of Excellence will also create and facilitate collaboration with businesses in the area, including project and product development, in a similar way to the High Value Manufacturing Catapult network in the UK. It will be a highly capable, modern and technologically advanced facility when it opens, and the partnership with KUKA will help it remain contemporary, relevant and a vital resource for the manufacturing sector in Ireland in the years to come.

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