Award-winning automation project

Chris Dalhoff, right, and Eric Laylan stand infront of their automated manufacturing project that took first place in the FANUC America Automation Challenge. Dalhoff, a Baraboo High School alumnus, graduated from Madison Area Technical College with an associate degree in May and now works as an automation technician at HUSCO International in Waukesha.

MATC/Contributed

Congratulations to Baraboo High School graduate Chris Dalhoff for winning the Automation Challenge 2.0 with his partner Eric Laylon of Madison. The national recognition not only brought $60,000 in prizes to Madison Area Technical College, it has opened up employment opportunities for these two young men.

More importantly, congratulations to Dalhoff’s dad. According to Jake Prinsen’s article in the Sept. 30 Baraboo News Republic, it turns out that, in this case, father does know best. It was dad that advised the future automation technician to consider taking automation courses at MATC. Through his dad’s advice, he learned factories are not the dirty environments most of us picture from the 1930s. Technology has changed this portrait of America’s industrial age.

Growing up with family that worked at the American Motors Corp. assembly plant in Kenosha, I pictured them working in this dark, greasy environment. Chrysler, which bought out AMC, closed the plant in 1988, claiming the factory wasn’t modern enough.

Just a couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Ford’s assembly plant in Dearborn, Michigan. The 60-year-old factory is continually updated and modernized. During our visit, they were capturing stormwater runoff and had rooftop gardens. Everything inside was white and bright, not the dingy dungeon one might picture of a factory that makes their top-line pickup trucks. This robotic-driven plant has 5,500 employees.

Last year, Ford announced it would rededicate its focus into the Michigan campuses that contain the company’s headquarters and the factory. The 10-year project is a commitment that will guarantee at least 30,000 jobs in Michigan for at least the next 60 years.

Dalhoff’s career choice, according to the article, also may have been guided by a grant intended to help “bolster manufacturing around Sauk County.” The grant provided him an opportunity to attend some of MATC’s automated manufacturing systems technology classes for free. The upside is the grant has the correct focus. The downside is Dalhoff is now working in Waukesha, not Sauk County.

It’s not very likely Dalhoff’s dad predicted the future — the article doesn’t state what the kid’s old man does for a living — but I am guessing he has seen the inside of a factory or two. Like many of us, he recognized that high-paying jobs are in manufacturing and not the service industry.

For Dalhoff to have the opportunity to succeed here, there needs to be more factory jobs. These jobs do exist here, but we can do even better by ensuring these kids come back to Sauk County by having our employers sponsor these grants with employment guarantees while also working to attract new employers.

Gov. Scott Walker, supported by the Republican-led Wisconsin Legislature, understands the future of manufacturing lies in automation. That’s why they heavily invested in Foxconn. We need to replace the GM assembly plant in Janesville, and the Oscar Mayer headquarters and packing plant in Madison, both of which became victims of modernization.

You can only retool those old factories so much untill they are no longer profitable and then you need to close the doors. Today’s modern factory is constructed with flexibility in mind. It is easier to move production lines and, more importantly, adjust for automated technology, which continually improves their bottom lines.

Incentives do not guarantee that modern factories won’t close, but it makes the desire to leave less likely when companies are in a state that is competitive and demonstrates it wants them to stay. Meanwhile, a lot of Priuses and Subarus have “Corporations are not people” bumper stickers on them. Ironically, Japan’s corporate tax of 29.9 percent is advantageous when compared to the 35 percent corporate tax on United States businesses. Those “non-people” provide jobs and if the United States would drop its tax rate to a more competitive level, maybe the Prius also could be made in America.

High-paying tech jobs do not simply belong to the biotech and computer science industries. The automated equipment industry also has high-paying jobs. The factories that can use high-tech robotics hire technicians with more high-paying jobs. These tech jobs come out of tech schools, not universities.

We shouldn’t need a national recognition program to ensure our kids have employment opportunities. Middle-class incomes came out of factory employment. While university educations are necessary for some kids to get ahead, most others need a degree from a technical school.

Our challenge is to continue incentivizing the tech programs that will drive the next generation of manufacturing.

Tim McCumber believes a bankrupt nation feeds no one.