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High schools plant the seeds for the future of manufacturing

Schools in the US, Germany, South Korea and Mexico are sold on the idea of giving their students a foundation in robotics

Jarred Seigle, a high-school senior in Anna, Ohio, checking that a robotic arm he helped program places a battery in the right spot.

Amelie Haves, a middle school student in Bonn, checks the motion sequence of a robot she programmed.

Anna, Ohio

IN early May, in a classroom at Anna High School, five seniors focused on controlling a robotic arm, taking turns tapping code into a pendant connected to the arm.

Their assignment was to make the arm grab and move a bunch of AA batteries one by one from one box to another, and in the process, make the arm circle each battery inside an empty Folgers coffee canister and then return it to its original spot without knocking any over.

But something in their code was off, so a few of the batteries wobbled and fell. The students, who were learning about industrial robots and other technologies used in advanced manufacturing, took the hiccup in stride, examining lines of code for errors and cracking jokes. Their teacher, K.C. Needles, offered encouragement but didn't tell them how to fix their mistake.

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'We could be doing this someday'

One of the students, Jarred Seigle, liked how their task was similar to what he'd seen robots do on assembly lines in Honda's engine plant near his home. "This is something we could all be doing in a few years if we're working in a factory. We might be programming robots," said the 18-year-old.

The school, located about 80 km north of Dayton, is among secondary schools around the world that offer robotics classes and related disciplines to prepare students for industries being transformed by automation.

The schools are adapting educational materials developed by manufacturers and building special labs to give the students a foundation in how industrial technology works and, in some cases, expose them to manufacturing careers.

Robots could eliminate 75 million jobs globally by 2022 and create 133 million others, said a World Economic Forum report last year. Global manufacturers could also face a potential shortage of 7.9 million workers by 2030, a study by consulting firm Korn Ferry warned last year.

Because of negative perceptions about factory work, making it appealing is a global challenge, said Rob Luce, vice-president of the SME Education Foundation, the philanthropic training arm of manufacturing trade group SME.

The foundation helped start the Anna High School programme and nearly 50 others like it in American high schools. "The nation that figures it out first is going to be in the front position to capitalise," Mr Luce said.

Manufacturers' need for people who can operate, troubleshoot, maintain and install robotics and automation technology is going to grow in the future, said Scot McLemore, manager of talent acquisition at Honda North America. Automation equipment is increasingly being adopted by sectors outside of auto manufacturing, which has used robots for decades.

Worldwide, industrial robot sales grew from 221,000 units in 2014 to 381,000 in 2017, noted the Frankfurt-based International Federation of Robotics; sales could reach 484,000 by year-end and 553,000 next year.

The factory perception problem is thorny, Mr McLemore said. Unless parents know someone working in manufacturing, "they either have no idea what happens or they have a misperception that it's dark, dirty and dangerous - definitely not the case".

Amelie Haves, 14, has been operating the arm in her robotics course at her middle school near Bonn, Germany. "It looks difficult, but isn't that difficult to programme a robot," she said. "Our future is going to be involved with all of this technology . All the big companies that produce anything now have robots."

Foundation course

The school's goal is to give participants a foundation in programming and operating industrial robots. The certificate that the students earn after the course is from Japanese manufacturer Yaskawa - the same certificate adults receive.

Amelie's mother, Sheona Hamilton-Grant, who encouraged her daughter to enroll in the two-year course, likes how closely Yaskawa is involved and how the students gain confidence applying robotics in practical ways.

Christian Zimbelmann and Hans Werner Meurer, Amelie's teachers, designed the course around practical problems, such as moving toy bricks from Point A to B by programming the arm. "We can't let students go out into the workforce without the foundation to handle complex automated systems," Mr Zimbelmann said.

Ulla Engelmann, head of the unit for advanced technologies, clusters and social economy at the European Commission in Brussels, said the course is an idea that could be replicated across Europe.

"There are so many fear factors when you talk about robotics," she said. This programme diminishes those fears and shows robots can make your "future work life easier".

In Mexico, government education officials seem increasingly willing to have public schools teach robotics, said Roberto Saint Martin, a founder and the chief executive of RobotiX, a robotics education business, which started in 2006 in Mexico City. The company said it has run its programmes in more than 1,400 schools and learning centres in Mexico.

RobotiX sends its instructors to schools and also trains teachers. The traction is driven in large part by parents, said David Romero, a professor at Tecnólogico de Monterrey, where Mr Saint Martin hatched the idea for RobotiX. "Parents get that if their kid wants employment in the future, she or he should be able to design, program and repair a robot."

Businesses aren't going to stop automating, said Miae Lee, a teacher at Seoul Robotics High School, a competitive technical school with about 460 students. "I tell my students: 'If you learn about the robots, you can get a good job after graduation'," she said.

"They have to choose: Do you want to lose your job to a robot or do you want to be hired to make or control it?"

Anna High School installed its robotic arm in 2018, after SME Education Foundation and Honda approached the school to develop a program together. Rather than relegate the classes to a vocational career centre, its robotics classes are taught in the main school building.

Joel Staudter, the principal and a certified instructor in robotics, said the school isn't trying to mint "the perfect employee for Honda". "We're trying to give them foundational knowledge," he said. NYTIMES