Westmoreland County Community College's technology center ahead of schedule

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Westmoreland County Community College’s new $12 million Advanced Technology Center at the former Sony plant in New Stanton is a month ahead of schedule.

It should be completed in time for the college to move its manufacturing workforce development programs and equipment into its new 73,000-square-foot space by mid-June. At the groundbreaking last July, officials estimated the remodeling would take until mid-July this year.

Doug Jensen, associate vice president of workforce development at the college, is project director for the new Advanced Technology Center.

He said a new flat roof has been completed over the space, and construction of new classrooms and labs is moving ahead.

The old Sony plant — now called Westmoreland RIDC — is huge, about 2.3 million square feet, so the Advanced Technology Center will occupy only a fraction of the building. Several businesses have already committed to using some of the remaining space, including Aquion Inc., which plans to manufacture sodium batteries.

The community college’s workforce development program currently has a dozen labs at the Business and Technology Building at its main Youngwood campus.

Current labs include those with CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machining equipment, AutoCAD (Computer Assisted Drafting) machines, 3D printers, process control trainers and computers for programming.

“We have a 20-foot ceiling at the new center, a big 14-foot-by-14-foot door to bring in big equipment, and an area of about 16,000 square feet that we can zone off into smaller areas ... ,” he said. "It’s a unique, flexible space.”

WCCC has 700 full- and part-time students enrolled in its workforce development programs. That includes classes in welding, machining, drafting, electronics, metallurgy and mechatronics (which combines mechanical engineering, electronics and computer programming).

Mr. Jensen expects to see an increase in enrollment in these fields when classes begin in the fall at the new tech center.

“We want to create a center for excellence in manufacturing in the region,” he said about the new center, which will have a ribbon-cutting Sept. 5.

Rapidly changing technology trends in manufacturing mean students need to have skills in computers, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering, he said.

“We’re training people for jobs that are not even created yet,” he said. "We need people with extreme problem-solving skills and tremendous teamwork and people skills to design and produce products."

Mr. Jensen says the new tech center will be a public-private partnership, where the college works closely with local

business partners.

The college has formed a strategic partnership with Kennametal Inc. in Unity Township. Kennametal CEO Carlos Cardoso is on the U.S. Manufacturing Council in the Department of Commerce.

“Kennametal tells us what skills they need in workers, and we have an occupational advisory committee to stay in touch with other area employers to know what they need,” he said.

“Manufacturing is being revitalized in the area, it’s roaring back, and these skills will be needed in the gas and oil industry as well,” Mr. Jensen said. “We want the college to be a regional asset and support area businesses.”

The tech center and old Sony plant will have space available for new startup businesses or to attract businesses to the region.

“This center will give us a tremendous opportunity to accelerate businesses,” he said. “We’ll try to recruit businesses to the area or help businesses develop new products."

The college also works with economic development groups in the region — including the county’s Economic Growth Connection, the county Industrial Development Authority and the Allegheny Conference in Pittsburgh — to assist businesses.

The college is partnering with California University in a baccalaureate program to provide Siemens Level 1, 2 and 3 certification in mechatronics.

Mr. Jensen said that he believes 3D printing will have a significant impact on local manufacturing.

“We have a 3D printer already at the campus,” he said. “This is really going to reshape the manufacturing sector. We have one local company, ExOne in Irwin, that prints stainless steel pieces using a 3D printer and manufactures 3D printers."

This is all part of the “additive” manufacturing process, he said, in which layers of material are added together to make something.

“We have local businesses that send us files and we make a prototype for them on our 3D printer. Then they take it back to their engineers to confirm. These printers will change the industry."

He expects the new kinds of manufacturing technology jobs to help improve the local economy, as well.

“The Advanced Technology Center will move the needle on education in the region,” he said.

“These technicians that we need to train for these new jobs will be earning a livable wage,” he said. Kennametal officials have said these jobs will pay $40,000 to $50,000 annually, plus benefits.

The college is also working for the first time this year with five Career and Technical Centers in the county to allow high school students to get a head start on their college courses. Through private funding, students can get up to 12 credits in industrial technology.

Mr. Jensen said 60 high school students are currently enrolled, with eight or nine graduating from high school this year with the special certificates in industrial technology.

“We need to change the mindset of people about manufacturing jobs,” said Mr. Jensen. "These industrial technology jobs are good for a quality of life, and these are in high-demand occupations. We can’t think of them as ‘labor’ anymore, that manufacturing jobs are simply labor jobs. We need to think of them as industrial technology jobs.

“As Mr. Cardoso says, manufacturing creates the middle class. And it is this entrepreneurial spirit of making things that we want to foster."

Debra Duncan, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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