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ADVANCED PRODUCTION: Operations Director Mark Sample says Positronic Industries is moving toward automation and smart tooling.
SBJ photo by Wes Hamilton
ADVANCED PRODUCTION: Operations Director Mark Sample says Positronic Industries is moving toward automation and smart tooling.

Robotics in Waiting: OTC seeks pole position as advanced manufacturing educator

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Ozarks Technical Community College hopes to become the first educator statewide to propel students into the automated world of advanced manufacturing, creating a lab of sorts for manufacturers to ponder new processes.

The move is no coincidence, and it would come with a new property tax levied on residents of regional school districts. But OTC Chancellor Hal Higdon said manufacturing jobs steadily have returned stateside from foreign markets for timely, cheaper, robotized production.

Workers are needed to run those machines, and southwest Missouri could earn the front-end of business, Higdon said. Greater skills training also could help remedy a growing workforce deficit among manufacturing companies.

“We can be a place where they can try out a new line, come assemble it in our innovation center and get it manufactured somewhat in miniature before they roll it out in their own space,” Higdon said.

To make that possible, OTC officials in December announced plans for a new Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Technology. The proposed $20 million center would be built on the east side of the 1001 E. Chestnut Expressway campus.

“Everybody has some interest,” Higdon said of other schools in Kansas City and St. Louis. “This would be a prototype, and I think, if we do it, the others would follow.”

Advanced manufacturing – the push toward leaner, more heavily automated processes – is a revolution in the works, said Mark Sample, director of operations for Positronic Industries Inc.

Sample said it’s difficult to find highly skilled workers, especially equipment operators, for the electronics company that produces middle-industry consumer and military parts to high-end components for NASA.

He said the Springfield company with a worldwide footprint is certain to move toward automation, smart tooling and robotics. Currently, Positronic employs computer numerical control equipment for machines, as well as older auto lathe equipment, Sample said. In terms of advanced manufacturing, he said company robotics include semi-automated processes and machines that dispense glue.

“I really think that’s going to become one of the critical gaps in our workforce in the next five to 10 years,” Sample said. “I hope there’s a whole lot of people getting ready to repurpose their skill sets for that, because I think it’s going to be nearly a revolution.”

Tax levies
OTC officials secured two proposals for school funding that will appear on the April 3 ballot.

The first, Proposition A, seeks to renew for another 20 years a 5-cent property tax levy per $100 of assessed valuation. Voters in the region first approved the 5-cent tax levy in 1998. If renewed, it would fund existing OTC programs and operations, Higdon said.

With an $80 million budget for the 2017-18 academic year – about $9.8 million of that sum coming from the current 15-cent tax levy – OTC offers nearly 50 two-year degrees, ranging in emphasis from arts to welding technology, in addition to a variety of technical certificates.

Higdon said the second funding measure, Proposition B, will ask voters to create an additional 5-cent tax levy, also carrying a 20-year sunset clause, to construct OTC’s proposed advanced manufacturing and technology center.

Voters from the college’s 16 tax-district schools will vote on the propositions, spanning districts in Ash Grove, Branson, Marshfield and Strafford.

OTC was founded in 1990 with a 10-cent tax levy imposed for school funding. If both propositions gain approval, the college would garner a 20-cent property tax levy per $100 assessed valuation of properties within its tax district.

Matt Simpson, OTC’s director of research, strategic planning and grant development, said the additional 5-cent levy would equate to a roughly $10 annual increase in property taxes per $100,000 valuation of a home and roughly $16 per $100,000 valuation of commercial property.

Simpson said the added funding annually would generate an additional $3.3 million in school funding, money also used to expand other technical and health programs at its Richwood Valley-Nixa and Table Rock-Hollister campuses.

Higdon said the proposed center would house new advanced manufacturing programs, such as mechatronics, precision manufacturing, stainless steel production and 3-D printing.

He said the school’s current 15-cent levy is the lowest tax burden imposed by any community college in the state, with the next lowest tax sitting at 21 cents for St. Louis Community College and the highest being 48 cents at Park Hills’ Mineral Area College.

Tech boost
Higdon touted OTC’s economic impact in promoting the April 3 propositions.

The school in October released an independent study on its fiscal impact to southwest Missouri during the 2015-16 academic year. Completed by Idaho-based EMSI, the report suggested that OTC contributed some $234 million to the regional economy via combined spending from school operations, construction, students and alumni.

Since 1998, over 23,000 students graduated from OTC – 95 percent staying in state – with enrollment tripling to 20,000 students, according to school data. Even with the growth, Higdon said the school is ill-equipped to furnish enough workers for potentially incoming advanced manufacturing jobs.

Those workers will be critical in the coming years, when advanced OTC programing would create a greater economic impact, said Matt Morrow, president of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, which endorses both funding propositions.

Morrow said OTC delivered its promised impact on the region after voters approved the 5-cent tax levy in 1998. The propositions are “essentially asking permission for the next investment,” he said.

“And the next investment is a critically important need for our community and our region. That’s getting skilled workers, particularly in the area of advanced manufacturing, allied health and all kinds of other key, high-demand positions,” Morrow said.

When companies of those high-demand fields look to invest in Springfield and the region, Morrow said, “the No. 1 challenge, the No. 1 question they have is, ‘Will I have the trained, qualified workforce to be able to invest not just today, but long term in this community?’”

Directors of the Missouri Association of Manufacturers recently lamented a growing deficit of 2 million trades workers during the industry group’s annual conference in Springfield.

Higdon said the deficit in southwest Missouri likely numbers in the thousands of workers.
 
And in the coming years, Sample said the gap would only grow with the industry making moves toward more automated production.

“I really think it is going to explode,” he said, emphasizing the need for heavy skills training. “Looking at what we have now, there’s a pretty big gap. I think that next generation coming up, with as much technology exposure as they’ve had through their lives, they’re going to be well suited to take on those jobs.”

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