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CCAC West Takes Mechatronics Program to Next Level

   Earlier this year, the Community College of Allegheny County’s West Hills Center began creating a course in robotics. The course, which teaches students how to program robots not unlike those used to run factories across the U.S, was the third in a series at CCAC in mechatronics.

   The courses, which combine elements of engineering, electronics, process control, and manufacturing, train students to fill a range of manufacturing jobs. Because of a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, they’re free to students, at least through next September. The idea behind the courses, says project manager Sylvia S. Elsayed, is to cover a gap in manufacturing knowledge in the region.

 “Baby boomers are retiring, technology is increasing, and people just are not trained to take these jobs,” says Sylvia, “and these are good paying jobs.”

CCAC West Takes Mechatronics Program to Next Level

    Sylvia says that CCAC offers the program free of charge to anyone with a high school diploma or GED and who qualifies with an 11th grade equivalency in a math and reading placement exam, regardless of manufacturing experience. Those with experience can start in one of the higher level courses, but the 140-hour Certified Production Technician (CPT) course gives students with no experience a vital introduction. The course combines class time and e-learning, and is offered every three months, with the next beginning in October.

   Those who complete the CPT course, or have prior manufacturing experience, are eligible to take a level one Advanced Manufacturing/ Integrated Systems Technology (AM/ IST) course. Graduates of the CPT course are able to fill a range of introductory manufacturing jobs, from shipping, receiving and traffic clerks, to team assemblers.

   The 360 hours of instruction in the AM/IST course can be completed in six months or less, says Sylvia, and will prepare graduates for entry in more technical troubleshooting and repair type jobs.

Graduates of that course can also advance to level two, where students begin to focus on areas of interest as they build systems that employ motors, convert AC currents to DC, and utilize electrical and mechanical systems. The course goes beyond the learning premise of level one, and students begin building actual systems using information learned in the first level to complete objectives laid out in textbooks.

Along the way, D. Paul Blackford and his fellow instructors guide students and test them by throwing figurative wrenches in their systems that mimick real life situations. With a twist of a valve or flip of a switch, they create pressure drops and electrical malfunctions that students must assess, diagnose, and correct.

   Those same systems, says Sylvia, are used in a range of settings, from water filtration plants to hospitals and schools. Graduates can fill jobs such as electrical and electronic equipment assemblers and perform mechanical maintenance and machinery repair. They can work fixing and maintaining equipment at hospitals, in steel mills, and in high schools and colleges.

   “People don’t realize the extent to which technical maintenance is used,” says Sylvia, pointing out that they have some of their own people taking the classes.

   Throughout both levels, students also work on Programmable Logic Controllers. Not much bigger than a toaster, the computers are the same as those used in factories, and powerful enough to run one. They’re also the same as those used by midstream companies at compressor stations in the expanding Marcellus Shale natural gas industry.

   “It just crosses over into a lot of different industries,” says Sylvia.

   Thus far, CCAC’s introductory and level one mechatronics courses have proven popular. As of this writing, Sylvia says there are still spots open for the upcoming CPT course, but that the 14 spots for next mechatronics course in September have already filled. She expects the 15 to 20 spots for the upcoming CPT class to fill up quickly as well.

   The next mechatronics class is set to begin in March of 2014. The grant making all the courses free to students currently runs through next September, but she says that the school is continuing to pursue that and other grant opportunities.

   Later this year, CCAC will begin offering its level three course in robotics and motion control. During the course, students will use machines similar to the PLC machines they’ve been trained on to program actual FANUC robots; the type that Paul says are used by about 70% of factories in the U.S. Using grant money, CCAC purchased three robots, two of which are FANUC robots, costing around $35,000 apiece. The robots, about three feet in height, are smaller versions of the kind often shown on television assembling automobiles. Paul says they use the same program functions, commands, and motions of their big brothers.

   “This is making believe we have a factory,” says Paul, who spent 25 years in the manufacturing sector before coming to CCAC.

   A former Kent State student and Navy machinist mate, as well as an FMCC graduate, Paul journeyed as an electrician and oversaw factories run by Coleco Toys and Gerry Baby Products. He modestly mentions that while at Gerry his factory became so efficient that the company brought three products lines back from China. Over the summer, he instructed the first three students entering into the level two mechatronics course at CCAC West Hills.

   Among those students was Sacha Pellaton, a self-employed, South Vo-Tech graduate who works as an auto mechanic. The trained electrician says that he’s already had one job offer in a related field at $70,000, and is hoping to work in the oil and gas industry. He says he’s looking at a job as a field technician for a third party company leasing equipment to a gas delivery company. Currently, he says that the company is flying technicians in from Louisiana to work on equipment because of a lack of trained local workforce.

   Over the summer, Sam Hinterlang, a level 1 mechatronics graduate, continued with the level 2 mechatronics course through his company, which runs a steel galvanizing plant. Sam says his employer looked at the curriculum, and saw an opportunity for him and the company to benefit. Sam took the class during down time at the company, and continued to receive pay while taking the level one and two courses two days per week.

   “It’s free training,” he says. “Why would I not want to do it?”


For more information, please contact Sylvia Elsayed at (412) 788-7534, or email at


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