Hawkeye Community College board authorizes $5 million smart automation concept at TechWorks

Artist rendering of the smart automation center posted on Tuesday, April 26, 2022 in  College News

WATERLOO — In the midst of pandemic-fueled supply chain issues and workforce shortages, Hawkeye Community College is eyeing demographic changes likely to have a longer-term impact on staffing in manufacturing industries.

An aging population means the shrinking pool of workers will be a continuing reality for employers. College officials have responded by developing a smart automation center concept, unveiled to the board of trustees this week.

The proposed center, with an estimated $5.12 million cost, would be located downtown at TechWorks Campus in 20,000 square feet of space available on the second floor. The project is currently in the design phase as Hawkeye administrators work to secure outside funding that would supplement college dollars.

Construction would take six months. Officials hope the center could be operational about a year from now and believe it could serve 250 people during the first year.

Trustees unanimously approved a resolution Tuesday authorizing President Todd Holcomb to move forward with the effort.

Smart automation is part of the technological changes that have been termed Industry 4.0 (or sometimes Manufacturing 4.0 in Iowa). It focuses on scaling up digital technologies to create interconnected systems in factories with the capability of increasing quality and productivity. These systems require new skills including the ability to interact with software, data, networks and smart devices.

“Automation will happen in every industry,” Aaron Sauerbrei, Hawkeye’s executive director of business and community education, told the board. But it will be a really important change in manufacturing and the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area.

“Manufacturing is our largest sector in the Cedar Valley. Almost a third of our regional product, to the tune of $2.65 billion, comes from manufacturing,” said Sauerbrei.

“It really is the way manufacturing is going, not only in the United States but worldwide,” said Holcomb.

“Our role is to train people to do this,” added Sauerbrei, through the college’s non-credit business education division. The training would teach people how to operate and program automated systems as well as how to install them and integrate different systems in a manufacturing plant.

Hawkeye’s efforts would focus on small- and medium-sized companies that need help updating equipment and training workers.

“What you’re seeing here is unique. To our knowledge, no other community college in Iowa is proposing this,” said Holcomb.

If the proposal envisioned is put into place, Hawkeye would work to make the center part of the Smart Automation Certification Alliance, or SACA. With that designation, it could draw participants not only from across Iowa but from neighboring states.

Five Cedar Valley manufacturers took the first step toward creating the center a year ago when they helped Hawkeye and other partners start IGNITE: Introduction to Advanced Manufacturing. Those businesses include John Deere, Doerfer, Iowa Laser, Kryton and Viking Pump. So far, 58 adult and Waterloo Career Center students have gone through the eight-week course, located in another space at the TechWorks building.

The course uses an online competency-based curriculum developed by the company Amatrol and advanced manufacturing modules that give students hands-on training in robotics, computer-aided design, computer numerical control machining, hydraulics, pneumatics, electrical processes and more.

IGNITE and five other Amatrol courses would be offered in the proposed center. Those include introduction to systems, mechatronic systems, digital manufacturing systems, advanced materials and designs, and data analytics and networking. People enrolled in the various programs could earn up to 20 stackable credentials that indicate they’ve mastered certain skills.

Existing equipment at the IGNITE lab and Hawkeye’s Cedar Falls Center would be used in the new space along with other pieces purchased for the expansion.

The training courses could lead directly to employment or feed into industrial automation, a two-year for-credit technical program at Hawkeye.

“This is an opportunity to bring in under-skilled individuals and up-skill them,” said Holcomb. He also described it as “a talent retention model to keep people in the Cedar Valley.”

Sauerbrei said Srdjan Golub, the college’s director of community education and workforce solutions, was key to developing the smart automation center proposal. In September, Holcomb and Sauerbrei made visits to Detroit and Louisville as they learned more about the concept. FANUC, a leading supplier and producer of robots, has its American headquarters in Detroit and Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville, Ky., has already invested in smart automation training.

The $5.12 million budget estimate includes $2.6 million for construction, $2 million for equipment, and $523,000 for furniture and fixtures.

“We are going to be asking the private sector to contribute to this. We want to get that overall cost down as much as we can,” said Sauerbrei.

Holcomb said the funding would be a “combination of private giving, grants and college funds.” He noted the more donations that are received, the more Hawkeye funds can be put into equipment needs.

By Andrew Wind, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier


  1. Advanced Manufacturing
  2. Business and Community Education
  3. Corporate and Business Solutions
  4. Manufacturing 4.0
  5. smart automation
  6. TechWorks
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