Larry Flatt, executive director at Motlow State Automation and Robotics Training Center, discusses how the center is preparing its students to help meet growing workforce demands in Tennessee.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Karen Wilson: Welcome to the BLC Connection Podcast. I’m Karen Wilson and your host for today. These small episodes will focus on local businesses that excel at particular parts of customer care. Today’s guest is executive director Larry Flatt from Motlow State Automation and Robotics Training Center. Welcome to the BLC Connection, Mr. Flatt.
Larry Flatt: Well, thank you, and we’re glad to have you here. We especially appreciate everything that Ben Lomand Connect – I keep wanting to call it Ben Lomand Telephone. That shows how my age has come around. But we appreciate everything you do for the community. And I especially appreciated every night when I sit down and my internet is working, and I’m able to see those TV channels that I like to see.
Karen Wilson: Are you able to get our gig service yet?
Larry Flatt: Yes, we are.
Karen Wilson: Good, good. I love the gig. You know, you don’t have to worry about any spinning or anything like that. It makes a huge difference. But I want to say how impressed I am. I’ve been in your facility a few times, and it never ceases to impress me that we have this in our region here.
Larry Flatt: Well, Warren County has a jewel in the Automation Robotics Training Center, the ARTC, as we call it. We are one of only two facilities in at least 250 miles that have three competing robot companies in the facility. The other one is in Decatur, Alabama. It is funded by the state of Alabama. So they have some pretty deep pockets. We, on the other hand, are part of academics, but we are more specifically part of the workforce group of Motlow College. And so therefore, we have to raise our own money. So we’re quite proud of the fact that we have this multimillion dollar facility. I would also add that we are going to increase the size by about 7,000 square feet, hopefully starting sometime in late fall, early spring.
Karen Wilson: Let’s begin with the training that ARTC provides. So what is automation and robotics training for those who have not visited a plant or factory? You know, you have a visual in your mind of human beings on a line, but that is probably not accurate anymore. What is all the robotics that you all provide or the training? What is that used for?
Larry Flatt: Well, you are correct in that the image is back to the forties and fifties when most people talk about manufacturing. And there are still facilities that employ that, but they are like dinosaurs. They’re going to live a fairly fast demise. Most of the companies you work with today have embraced this thing called 5S, where you shine up your facility, you focus on productivity, you focus on customer support and employee well-being. And people that listen to TV or listen to radio or read are hearing this thing called I4.0. I4.0 is industry 4.0. It’s just another way of referring to what I would say revolution in industry number four. So we think back to Henry Ford in the late 1800s or early 1900s, and then we had the automotive people that came here from Japan and other things that happen. But the industry 4.0 is about automation and providing creature comfort as well as creature well-being, plus the ability to earn a living that affords you the ability to have the things that we enjoy for those of us that are a little bit older. So I4.0, you’re going to hear terms like big data, whereas before our interest was in improving productivity by working harder and maybe a little bit smarter in some cases. With I4.0 strategy in the workplace, we’re now in the process of collecting data, analyzing data, looking for automation that has artificial intelligence. So it says this motor traditionally has run 500 hours, and we have to replace it. And so now we start collecting data, and we look at that and at 250, 300 hours, we plan to replace the motor instead of letting the machine break down. So it is an all encompassing approach to more productivity, with more profit, with more people employed at a higher level, because now we need more technical skills.
Karen Wilson: Right. So you’re planning your maintenance like many factories do, and then you’re not waiting for the automation to break down on its own. You schedule your maintenance and things like that and then you’re training, I guess, and you correct me if I’m wrong, your people to work on these robots and do the maintenance and things like that. I know that’s a very small way of looking at it.
Larry Flatt: But you’re exactly correct. The skills that we’re imparting to young people through the mechatronics program on the academic side allows them to enter the workforce at a much higher pay scale with a lot more skills. And you’re going to hear things like micro credentials and stackable credentials, but more specifically, the TCAT next door to us and what we do here again on the academic side is providing those young men and women with a lot of hands on opportunity so that they can do things like you were alluding to. If you’re looking at a motor, we’re now going to predict when it’s going to fail, and we’re going to not let that cause us to have a catastrophic event in our factory.
Karen Wilson: Right. Productivity and as you said, well-being of the workers as well. So tell us, I guess, how the idea of the training facility began and then came to fruition.
Larry Flatt: If you look back at what has happened in Warren County that has made Motlow be a star in the state of Tennessee, and in some cases across the entire nation, as it relates to mechatronics and robotics. If you recall, we had several factories closed back ten or 15 years ago. Carrier being one of those. AL Smith.
Karen Wilson: Aquatech.
Larry Flatt: Powermatic. You just keep naming them. There were five or six major industries that closed. And so consequently, we had all these people who had done things really well for their employer, but they didn’t have a lot of skill sets. For instance, at Carrier, there were many people, good people, that came to work every day and performed their job very well. But they might have only driven a Ford truck. And they maybe didn’t have a lot of academic background. And so when Carrier closed or Powermatic closed or Century or AL Smith or whoever you want to name, those individuals needed other opportunities to improve their skill sets. And so the Business Roundtable Action Group with Motlow and Industrial Development Board and Warren County all came together about 2008 or 2009 and said, “We really need to start a mechatronics program.”
Larry Flatt: Motlow is the second community college in the nation that embraced the Siemens approach to third party credentialing of individuals coming out of that program. And by doing that, we now have a third party validation that says we are teaching what industry believes those young men and women need to have. And from there, we built up the mechatronics program, started with nine individuals, and as of last count, we have graduated well over 600 individuals out of the mechatronics program. That gets us to about 2015. And in 2015, it became apparent of what was happening to replace individuals in industry who were doing these dangerous, mundane, sometimes dirty jobs. And so robotics began to show up. And the group that pretty much the same group of companies might be different faces came back to Motlow and said, “We think we need to start a robotics program.” And out of that robotics program grew the concept and the facility we have. And so I’ll hush, and let you ask another question, but then I’ll expand a little more.
Karen Wilson: Well, that’s what I was going to say. So you got us to the point, you guys were doing some teaching through the mechatronics. And then did it just kind of evolve where it’s like, “Okay, we need a facility here. We need we need more hands on approach to this.”
Larry Flatt: It evolved from the standpoint that people begin to look around, and all of a sudden we became the Detroit of the South. And so the automotive people, the Nissans, the Volkswagens and other companies were locating here, or relocating here. And when they did that, you have all these tier one suppliers and tier two suppliers that are also locating or co-locating or building. And the group that came together, when I go back and look at the grant, it was approved. And as part of Governor Haslam’s drive to 55, they identified that there were 7,000 robots within 70 miles of Warren County. So because we’re halfway between Chattanooga and Smyrna and Nashville area, we have those businesses with robots. But they really miss measured. Because I can count three companies that have 7,000 robots, but the impetus was there that we need to equip individuals to repair these robots, to program these robots, to service the people who are providing the robots into the company, i.e. the engineers and the project managers and those people.
Karen Wilson: So let’s get into how you’ve partner with these leading manufacturers of industrial robots and what these robots are used for in the industry. You mentioned three major robotics manufacturers that you all work with and outside certifications and things like that. Elaborate on that partnership.
Larry Flatt: Okay. There are lots of robot companies, and they’re more every day trying to get into the business. But if you look locally, there are three manufacturers, one out of Sweden, ABB, and FANUC and your Yoshikawa Motoman, both out of Japan. But they have U.S. bases that provide somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 to 80% of the robots in the United States to industry. If we look specifically in our area, FANUC is located in Nissan. It’s located in Volkswagen. It’s located in lots of other companies, and they probably have somewhere around 60% of the US market share. So if you go to the Nissan factory in Smyrna or you go to the Nissan factory where they make the engines in Decker, Tennessee, you’re going to see somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 to 5,000 robots in those two locations, putting together either engines together or cars together or whatever. When I go to your Yorozu ten miles down the road, they’ve got somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,200 to 1,500 robots from Motoman Corporation that are welding car parts. So odds are when you drove over here today, the undercarriage of your car was probably – some part of it was made in Morrison Tennessee, and they used a Motoman robot to weld it together.
Larry Flatt: And then we look at ABB, as I indicated when you came in, we have a class today. ABB and FANUC are located in Michigan and Motomon is located in Ohio. We have a class of ABB students here this week, and ABB can do the same thing at any other robot company can do. But in the automotive industry they have a niche market. So if you go to Volkswagen, for instance, they’re painting the cars, they’re putting the elastic or mastic around the windshields and of the moon roofs, and then they’re putting those items in the cars. You go to Nissan in Smyrna, they’re painting cars. So they have a niche market. But as I said earlier, we are partnered with them, and we have a contract with them. And we have a revenue sharing agreement with them where some part of what is charged for each class is returned back to Motlow in the form of a profit.
Karen Wilson: Okay. So it kind of helps. It’s not just something that’s just here because. As you guys are hopefully making Motlow even more stable, bringing money into Motlow through this need that the industry had and fulfilling that need.
Larry Flatt: That’s correct. And as I said earlier, I won’t call us a profit center, but we are different. The ARTC is different from academics. Academics is a 14-week semester. You pay tuition fee, and you get a certificate or credential. Or you get an AAS or AS degree. And then you go into the workforce, you go on to a four-year school, and you complete that formal education. Everything we do in this facility is work based or around working. Those three individuals that I introduced you to earlier all work for a company in Louisiana. They may not have seen a robot when they came here on Monday, but this coming Monday, they will be back in their factory programing robots.
Karen Wilson: Wow. Impressive. So how do you keep. I know this technology changes. How do you keep your facility up to date as these robots kind of evolve and change? Or is it something that maybe it doesn’t change that much? Or elaborate on that for me.
Larry Flatt: Well, with any technology, it’s good for about 3 to 5 years, and then you’re going to be looking to have to upgrade. So we fortunately hit a time when most of the companies had just introduced current versions of what their robotics programing need to be. And every robot is made up of what people see out here that’s got an X, Y or Z and 1 to 3 axis. We call them six axis robots, so that we can move in six directions at one time. That robot doesn’t change as often as this thing called the controller. The controllers like your computer at your desk where you input data, and then you output data through a printer. So the controllers change as they see a competitive need or as technology changes. So our challenge is to find money from some source to continue to upgrade. And we do that through grants. We do it through the money that we raise for teaching, but there’s never enough money. So we’re always looking for what we’re going to do the next time we need to upgrade. And in some cases, our contracts with these companies allow us to maybe trade in the older version, and they will put that in spare parts. Or they’ll sell it on the market for less money for smaller companies that maybe don’t have the money to buy the more expensive robot at the time. And then that allows us multiple ways to re-facilitize, if you will.
Karen Wilson: Is that part of your responsibility? I guess, as a director is to constantly evaluate the technology, and when it’s time to upgrade do you lean on kind of these manufacturers to tell you when it’s time to change your training?
Larry Flatt: As a matter of fact, I do. I do that as part of my job. For instance, ABB will be introducing a new robot next year. The people that were designing that robot, I actually spent several hours on the phone with them in a conference calls where they ask my input about “What do you think we need to do? What would make it easier to train on these robots?” So that’s the kind of relationship we have with these companies where I’m, in many cases, personal friends with their senior training managers, or in this case, an engineer, a lady that was working on a new robot. And so they’ve let me know that next year, maybe a year after, we’re going to have to replace the six robots I have here from ABB. FANUC, I just saw a note come out today. They’ve introduced a new robot. I knew it was coming. I just hadn’t seen the specifics on it, but I did get an email on that today. So all of a sudden I’m going to be leaning on somebody to find some grant money that we can buy what we need and do what we need to do. Because if you’re not current, people are not going to come here.
Karen Wilson: Well, and you alluded to that earlier, talking about people coming here from other areas to train. So that’s another resource that the ARTC provides, is training for people already in the industry. Talk to the audience about that need and how the ARTC is utilized in that capacity.
Larry Flatt: In response to the question, I’m going to make a statement, and then we’ll talk a little bit about that. The thing that I would like our audience to know is the people who come here are from the region. For instance, we’ve just done a significant amount of training for Batesville on the automation side. We haven’t even talked about anything except robots, but we also teach automation. Automation uses things like PLCs, Programable Logic Controllers. That’s a big, fancy word to say. It’s just like your computer or your controller in your car. It is a device that runs a piece of equipment. And so logic controller implies there’s logic involved, and you’re controlling something. And so those PLCs have replaced in the last 25 years, things like switches. Today, when you pick up your smartphone, you don’t have keys anymore. You’ve got a thing called a human machine interface and HMI. That’s your smart screen. And so you begin to touch that, swipe it and do those things. We now do that with machines in industry. We don’t buy a bunch of switches. We program them into an HMI, and then this thing called a PLC in the background, it takes the input from that screen and makes the machine do something.
Larry Flatt: So with that in mind, the ability to do these things helps people get better jobs, higher paying jobs, and in many cases get promotions. I said all that to lead up to the point that it is regional in that we go out and try to recruit people from all over the state, if you will, to come here. But more importantly, some portion of our attendees here, probably more than 70% as of right now, are from out of state. And they come here because we are on the website of these companies. So, for instance, if you go to ABB’s website and you’re looking for a class that they call US420, Introduction to Robotics. Little old Motlow is listed right there with their corporate training facility. And so you can say, Do I want to go to Michigan in January, or do I want to come to McMinnville, Tennessee?
Karen Wilson: Oh, we’re happy to have them here. I mean, Larry, you could get over my head pretty quick with all of the, but I mean, it’s amazing too and reassuring to think of even local industries utilizing this facility to better their factories, their jobs, you know, and educating their people. Because all of those people reside in our region here and are making a living here and raising their families here. So it’s very, I guess, good to know that places like Batesville and factories in our territory are utilizing this.
Larry Flatt: Yes. Yeah. And locally we have top people from Dyersburg, Tennessee, Chattanooga, of course, our local industries. A lot of people out of Smyrna come here. One of the things that’s really helped us in getting people to want to come here is the new hotel and the renovation that they’re going to be doing to the Best Western, which may not be common knowledge, but they’re going to be investing fairly good amount of money in upgrading the facilities at the Best Western. So those two facilities being within some cases walking distance of this facility have allowed people to and encourage people to want to stay in McMinnville. Before unfortunately, they were staying in – I guess fortunately for them, but unfortunately for us – they were staying in Manchester, Murfreesboro and other places. And so we always want to recognize those people that are supporting us in the additions that have been made in Warren County in terms of creature comfort and convenience.
Karen Wilson: Yeah, if you want to or you’ve got to go to training someplace, you do like a nice place to stay. Convenient. Good places to eat. Of course, it’s beautiful here, and there’s plenty to do if they decide to stay. But I didn’t think about that. You need those complimentary resources to make it attractive to send your folks here.
Larry Flatt: Yes. And several of our instructors who are outdoors kind of people have actually brought their campers down, and they’re staying at Fall Creek Falls or Rock Island or other places and enjoying the outdoors part of what we have to offer here, in addition to being able to teach you.
Karen Wilson: Well, that’s good to know. It’s all a big circle and hands go in hands to make all that just a perfect environment. So my final question, I guess, and is just what are a couple of your favorite success stories or wins for the ARTC?
Larry Flatt: Well, I thought about that last evening as I was getting ready for the podcast today. We have lots of individuals and companies that I believe have benefited significantly from the fact that we’re here. But a couple of things that I would just share right off the top. We have a strong partnership with Kasai, which is a Tier one supplier of door panels and headliners to many car companies. Corporate headquarter is in Manchester, and of course, the manufacturing facility at corporate headquarters in Smyrna and the manufacturing in Manchester. I think I said that incorrectly. They about 18 months ago had a new model being introduced by Nissan, and they needed to build, I believe, it was a door panel for a car to make a prototype deadline. The work cell that needed to make that was still in Japan. And so they weren’t sure how they were going to be able to provide this in time, that Nissan wasn’t going to be unhappy with them because they didn’t make their deadline. We have, with all three companies, we have a virtual training opportunity with them, specifically Kasai I use his Motoman, and they have a thing called MotoSIM Touch. And so MotoSIM Touch allows you to program the robot offline on a computer, but you can import your work cell that engineers have designed. You can import your robot. You can do everything virtually. And so they call me up and said, “What if we come down and do that?” They brought one of our former students and two engineers down, and in three days they started from scratch, programmed that entire work cell.
Larry Flatt: Programmed the robot. Put it on a thumb drive, and when the work cell arrived, they plugged a thumb drive in, tweak the points, and they made the deadline for that part. That’s a real win when you can talk about industry coming here to be trained, but more importantly, we can support industry. And so we’re quite excited by those opportunities. The other thing we’re excited about that is not a win yet, but we anticipate it will be, is electric vehicles are the up and coming thing that everybody is talking about, reading about and anticipating. Specifically Blue Oval City, a multibillion dollar investment by Ford over in West Tennessee. They’re going to employ somewhere around 11,000 individuals, if I remember the right number. And many of those will have to be trained. Even though they’re going to build a Tennessee College of Applied Technology facility onsite, we’re optimistic at working with the local Industrial Development Board, Economic Development for the state of Tennessee and Ford specifically, that we’re going to be able to get part of that training. And that means people would be traveling here from West Tennessee, being trained and then going back to Ford. And if we when we accomplish that, it will be a major event for this faciliy.
Karen Wilson: I think about 11,000 potential employees, one coming to the state for that. But then you can’t possibly train at one facility for that. But it’s so interesting that within even that same state of Tennessee, they have a second location to come here to McMinnville and get that training. That’s just so impressive.
Larry Flatt: Well, we’re excited about it. And we’ve already had some dialog with some people from Ford. I can’t go a lot deeper into it right now, but we’re working that. We’re also excited that Ultium Sales in Spring Hill, Tennessee, will be the battery provider for General Motors Cadillac that’s going to be built starting, I believe, next year in the Spring Hill facility. We’re also working with them to possibly be a training provider for them. They’re going to be exclusively FANUC robots. We’re not sure about the PLC yet, but I have four brands of PLCs we can teach, and we’re pretty confident that one of those four will be ones that we teach.
Karen Wilson: So this wasn’t on my list of questions, but thinking like, okay, I’ve got a student in high school, maybe early years of college or something of that nature. What as a parent or as a teacher are you planning? What seeds are you planting for students to go into this field? What are they studying in their high schools or at the high school to broaden this career?
Larry Flatt: But I’m going to answer your question with a statement, and then I’ll talk specifics. I taught mechatronics here for about six and a half years before we built a facility. And I moved over here, and I tried to encourage those young men and women by saying to them, plan your career about what you do not want to do when you’re 55, as opposed to what you can do when you’re 25. And so as we take that and they kind of mull that over in their head and wondering what this old man is trying to tell them, we get then into the conversation about what do you really want to do with your life? It’s easy to be on top of a machine or climbing the ladder when you’re 25. It’s not so easy when you’re 65 or 55. And so that leads us then to the discussion about getting skill sets, getting credentials, getting micro credentials, demonstrating capability. Book knowledge is always important. I’m an engineer by degree. I have a master’s in business, and they have served me well. But the thing that served me better as I came out of college was the fact that during that time I worked in factories when I was a junior and senior in college, and then later in my career. And I had these crusty old men that would pick me up and say, “Don’t do it that way, do it this way, because that’s a better way of doing it.” And so we try to encourage our young men and women to think about better ways to do it. What skills do I need, what I really want to do with those skills. And 10, 15 years down the road, instead of just today, I get to buy a new car.
Karen Wilson: Critical thinking skills. And that’s part of what I guess kids are developing during those years of their schooling is to rethink things.
Larry Flatt: Yes. And I might add, because as we ponder this question, I was working with a company about two months ago, and everybody today wants to talk about soft skills: team building, writing a resumé, being able to communicate those kind of things. This company looked at me across the table and they said, “Do not use that term again in our factory. It’s critical to work skills.” And so I am trying to get people to start calling them critical to work skills. You need these skills. You need to be able to work in a team. You need to have critical thinking. You need to have problem solving. You need to be able to look beyond today and see what’s going to happen tomorrow. So if I just burned up a $4,000 motor, why did it burn up as opposed to putting another motor in there and burning up another $4,000 motor? So these critical to work skills are the things that we all should be promoting in our young people.
Karen Wilson: Well, you mentioned the expansion. What is that looking like, or what are you planning for the expansion of the ARTC?
Larry Flatt: Well, as I said, we’re going to add an additional 7,000 square feet with some offices. What that will entail will be three classrooms. We’re going to add a cybersecurity program in McMinnville. We’ve already got it in Moore County, and we’ve got it in Smyrna, but we’ll be adding it here. So we’ll have a large classroom for cybersecurity. We’ll have two new classrooms for mechatronics, and we’re adding three additional laboratories: one for cyber, two for mechatronics, and then the additional space. Because if you go to the original center here in McMinnville, you’ll say there’s not any room for growth in terms of adding faculty or administrative services. And so we’ll be adding several opportunities for more office space, more administrative space.
Karen Wilson: Well, as a technology provider. When you say cybersecurity, that just, you know, appeals, that is such a critical thing right now. Glad to see you all offering that because it’s something that’s very needed all over the United States, all over the world. So it’s impressive to think that some of those people will be training here locally in McMinnville.
Larry Flatt: It’s especially important when you look at the companies that are being held hostage. One of our sister community colleges was ransomware about six months ago, and last semester they had to enroll people on paper because they still had not gotten all their records and systems back up and running. And so cybersecurity, the ability to intercept and thwart, if you will, those people that are trying to get inside of your facility is one of the most important things, in my opinion, that is currently being taught to our young men and women. We also have the ability through some grants to and working with Amazon, a thing called AWS. Amazon is, it’s cloud computing, if you will. But Amazon is providing funds and credentialing for our students and for our faculty to be able to achieve, in many cases, thousands of dollars worth of credentials free simply by going through our cybersecurity program.
Karen Wilson: Wow. That is a great opportunity for students. There’s many out there. As you said, getting certifications and credentials can be very expensive. So that’s a great resource for them to get what they need at little or no cost to them. And then what a leg up in the career world that they have with those credentials. It’s almost like endless possibilities.
Larry Flatt: That’s correct. And I don’t recall if I said this before or not, but when we started introducing on the academic side micro credentials two semesters ago, working with Motoman, the four credentials that cost the students $100, if they came here and took that on the industry side, it’d be $4,000 worth of credentials. So when we can work with companies on the academic side and get discounts or free certifications, it’s a real win for the college and the students and the community and the employer.
Karen Wilson: Yeah, well, that’s a good note to end on. Mr. Larry Flatt. That’s a very positive note, and I want to thank you for being our guest today on this special edition of the BLC podcast. I think we’ve learned a lot about how you all provide employment resources and training facilities for leading industrial employers, and I invite our listeners to tune in for future episodes and share this content with other businesses. Until next time, this is your BLC Connection.