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Turning around 'das boot'

What began as a sad look at the skills gap between U.S. and European packaging automation curricula concluded with a pleasant surprise announcement by Purdue University Calumet.

The session comparing Germany's strength in mechatronics education to America's skills gap ended on an upbeat note with the anno
The session comparing Germany's strength in mechatronics education to America's skills gap ended on an upbeat note with the anno
Packagers vexed over the lack of skilled maintenance personnel in the workforce and packaging systems designers seeking scarce engineering resources converged on the PACK EXPO conference track “Automation Skills Training in Germany: Are We Missing ‘Das Boot?’”

What they got in addition was a handful of encouragement. This included the announcement that Purdue University Calumet of the Purdue University system will offer North America’s first comprehensive, packaging machinery-focused mechatronics engineering technology program.

A lively dialogue ensued in the form of an impromptu panel discussion moderated by Food & Drug Packaging editor Lisa Pierce. Panelists were Wisconsin Indianhead educator Kevin Lipsky, Hershey veteran turned education proponent Keith Campbell, Bruce Larson of Goodman Packaging Equipment and chair of the PMMI Education Committee, and ELAU marketer and session speaker John Kowal. This dialogue will be reported in a future article.

A sad reality

The shocking truth is that technicians in Germany get 3 _ years of education, about half of it in the form of practical, hands-on internships working under the supervision of experienced engineers. In the U.S., technicians get two years of education, and not always involving the most up-to-date control systems or real machinery.

Kowal’s presentation was co-authored by ELAU training manager Rainer Beudert and showed several technical universities in Germany offering mechatronics programs. In contrast, most U.S. engineering schools still divide electrical/electronic, computer science and mechanical disciplines into separate programs.

The business case is for more PMMI member companies to design the kind of packaging systems that will compete head-to-head with advanced European machinery. This requires access to interdisciplinary design skills.

The presentation also showed technicians-in-training at work on PC boards, soldering and performing QA tasks in ELAU’s production halls. Engineering student interns complete an actual machinery project prior to taking their final exams.

Mechatronics graduates: highly employable

Although mechatronics programs exist at some U.S. universities, they are generally confined to robotics and relatively theoretical. Purdue Calumet’s initiative, which debuts with the Fall 2008 semester, is believed to be the first such program in the U.S. to focus on machinery, and is specifically the first to target career opportunities in the packaging machinery industry.

Mechanical engineering technology professor Jim Higley credits Morrison Container Handling Solutions owner Nick Wilson with convincing Purdue Calumet of the job opportunities awaiting mechatronics graduates. Visiting PACK EXPO and seeing hundreds of companies all in need of skilled engineers simply reinforced the decision for Higley and fellow professor Masoud Fathizadeh.

Industry’s support is crucial

Wilson, an extremely active member of PMMI, also recognized the importance of enlisting the automation industry’s support for Purdue Calumet. This cooperation with industry is common in Europe.

Technology companies provide schools with up to date equipment, technical advice and assistance, internship opportunities and endorsements for pending grant proposals. In turn, the companies are assured of a qualified pool of candidates into the future.

Upon being informed of the new curriculum, ELAU’s Kowal immediately participated in the group’s first meeting and pledged their support. He has been pursuing establishment of a PMMI Technician Certification and has participated in recent 2-year curriculum development.

In addition, ELAU’s parent company, Schneider Electric, has also expressed interest in participating in the program.

2-year curricula also taking shape

The presentation also noted the 2-year curricula at Lipsky’s Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College, the 2-year Center for Automation and Motion Control at Minnesota’s Alexandria Technical College, and the Industrial Maintenance Training Center of Pennsylvania, which Campbell was instrumental in establishing along with an AAS Degree in Mechatronics Engineering Technology at Reading Area Community College.

Kowal noted that in combination, these forward-looking institutions are helping turn the boat around. He urged all in attendance to contact PMMI’s Technical Services Director, Maria Ferrante, with e-mails supporting the need for these curricula. Ms. Ferrante can be reached at [email protected].

About ELAU

Schneider Electric’s packaging specialist, ELAU is the only company worldwide exclusively focused on the automation of packaging machinery. ELAU’s PacDrive™ automation system offers the only automation platform purpose-built for the packaging industry.

ELAU equips over $1 billion worth of the world’s best machines annually, with over 35,000 PacDrive systems already deployed in packaging machinery worldwide.

The market demands packaging operations that are more flexible and efficient to fulfill marketing, supply chain and global business strategies. ELAU innovations have enabled a revolution in mechanical, software and hardware modularity to deliver these agile packaging systems.

Now ELAU invites the worldwide packaging community to take modularity to the next level with our new PacDrive™ Intelligent Servo Modules.

Far more than just distributing the servo drive out onto the motor, servo modules enable plug-and-play modularity, literally plugging machine modules into or out of the packaging system to change functionalities, formats and capacities.

By vastly streamlining the networks, cabling, interconnects and electrical hardware, Intelligent Servo Modules smaller, simpler, more maintainable and reconfigurable.

For more information, visit or email [email protected].
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