University breaks new ground in manufacturing world with industry-inspired automation leadership degree

UW System Board of Regents approves flexible program that stacks management skills onto smart automation training
​Jerry Poling | June 9, 2023

Manufacturing is going high-tech — robots, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, analytics and more to help make and distribute products. It’s called Industry 4.0, or smart automation.

Much of the next generation of the manufacturing workforce won’t make the products but will program and manage the automated systems that do it for them. To address the growing, skilled workforce needs, a first-of-its-kind bachelor’s program, automation leadership, was approved for UW-Stout on June 9 by the UW System Board of Regents. Enrollment is open for the fall semester.

“Industry partners have asserted that their workforces need upskilling in automation leadership and requested this program to fulfill that need,” said Glendali Rodriguez, UW-Stout provost and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs.

The online program is designed for technical and community college students who have an associate degree and incorporates training in SACA — the Smart Automation Certification Alliance. Students also can begin their career path in high school while taking college credits or, if working in industry, return to school as adult learners to finish their degree.

Students work on a flexible robotic arm in a lab at UW-Stout’s Fryklund Hall, home to the Robert F. Cervenka School of Engineering.
Students work on a flexible robotic arm in a lab at UW-Stout’s Fryklund Hall, home to the Robert F. Cervenka School of Engineering. / UW-Stout

Matt Kirchner, a national advanced manufacturing expert and SACA board member, said that having worked with educators across the country and world “we can say with full confidence that this degree is the first of its kind – anywhere.

“The integration of industry-backed stackable credentials from the Smart Automation Certification Alliance, the alliances with technical colleges and the hands-on nature of the degree are unmatched,” Kirchner added.

State manufacturers that supported development of the program include Harley-Davidson, Kohler, Mercury Marine, Oshkosh Corp., Ashley Furniture, Generac, Greenheck Group and Plexus, as well as many medium and small manufacturers.

The Smart Automation Certification Alliance uses Amatrol/FANUC smart factory learning systems to teach and certify SACA competencies, which are incorporated into UW-Stout’s new major.
SACA uses Amatrol/FANUC smart factory learning systems to teach and certify SACA competencies, which are incorporated into UW-Stout’s new major. / Contributed photo

“We consult with advanced manufacturing employers in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest – from smaller contract manufacturers to the Fortune 500,” Kirchner said. “Almost all of them tell us one of their greatest needs is for team members who understand automation, Industry 4.0, advanced control systems and process optimization and who can integrate highly advanced industrial technology and help lead a company’s digital transformation. People with these skills are in unbelievably high demand. This degree hits the mark with precision and does so in a genuinely innovative fashion.”

Kirchner has 20 years of experience as an advanced manufacturing CEO, is president of ATS/LAB Midwest, a leading distributor of technical education learning materials, and serves on many corporate and nonprofit boards, including SACA. He hosts the weekly TechEd Podcast.

Greenheck, based in Schofield, is investing heavily in automation because of concerns about current and future workforce shortages. Using automation, it hopes to double output of its operations while increasing labor costs just 50%, according to Scott Graf, chief manufacturing officer.

Greenheck's Innovation Center in Schofield
The Innovation Center at Greenheck Group. / Greenheck Group

Greenheck’s automated processes include sheet metal fabrication systems, robotic welding and assembly cells, automated material storage and retrieval systems for components, robotic paint lines and robots that load and unload machines.

“We will continue to grow and add new team members but at a slower rate, and more of the production jobs will become higher skilled and higher paid,” said Graf, an engineer and past member of UW-Stout’s manufacturing engineering advisory board.

The automation leadership program will provide the skilled leaders to manage those automated and robotic systems. Management positions in automation leadership are expected to grow 8% more than other management positions nationally through 2031.

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A flexible, collaborative program

Kirchner and Graf are excited about the program’s flexibility. Because it’s online, technical college transfers and current employees looking to advance their carers can finish their degree in about two years from home.

Also, with the Wisconsin Technical College System providing credit options to high school students and WTCS’ transfer agreements with the UW System, teenage students can get a head start on the degree.

“UW-Stout has truly listened to the needs of industry,” Graf said. “We have been asking for years for clean, easy progression from high school to technical college associate programs, to bachelor’s degrees that give credit and recognition for prior education and on-the-job learning.”

Kirchner agreed. “Students can literally be 75% of the way to a degree a year out of high school. They’ll spend way less, carry much less debt and earn impressive salaries years earlier than their peers. That’s what innovation and disruption in higher education looks like.

Technical and community college students, like these in the smart manufacturing lab at Northcentral Technical College, can finish an automation leadership degree at UW-Stout.
Technical and community college students, like these in the smart manufacturing lab at Northcentral Technical College, can finish an automation leadership degree at UW-Stout. / Northcentral Technical College

“Wisconsin and the U.S. are in dire need of educational institutions willing to see higher education for what it will be in the future – highly flexible, hands-on, career-relevant, affordable and efficient. (This) degree is a prime example of where higher education must go. It is exactly what employers are asking for and is tremendously forward-thinking,” Kirchner said.

Graduates will be able to solve broadly defined engineering problems; design Industry 4.0 and automation systems, components or processes; analyze data produced by Industry 4.0 systems and utilize findings for continuous improvement; and apply Industry 4.0 technology to lead digital transformation projects for manufacturers.

Darren Ackley, vice president of learning at Northcentral Technical College based in Wausau, said most WTCS graduates transferring to automation leadership will be from programs such as electromechanical, automation, and smart manufacturing at NTC, which has an Industry 4.0 Smart Manufacturing Lab.

A smart tabletop factory helps students learn about automation in manufacturing.
A smart tabletop factory helps students learn about automation in manufacturing. / Contributed photo

“This will be a great option for alumni and current students, as they will have the opportunity to complete their bachelor’s degree without having to move or quit their current job,” Ackley said. “By ensuring that WTCS students have the ability to transfer between WTCS schools and guaranteeing the acceptance of SACA certifications at UW-Stout regardless of the degree program, this pathway simplifies the credit and knowledge/skills transfer for students.

“We are excited for the opportunity to partner further because we recognize that both our students and our industry partners are looking for this type of degree and appreciate the flexibility that UW-Stout is able to offer,” Ackley said.

Technical + leadership skills

Automation leadership also will develop students’ skills in management, leadership and quality improvement through SACA-aligned core courses such as Project Management, Organizational Leadership, Lean Manufacturing, Digital Transformation, Internet of Things in Manufacturing and Automation Leadership.

Program graduates will enter the workforce with strong credentials — SACA certifications, which they can complete before or after transferring to UW-Stout, and industry experience through a required co-op or internship.

UW-Stout projects that within five years the program will have about 80 graduates and an annual average enrollment of about 50. In addition to transfer students, current UW-Stout bachelor’s students in engineering, technology and management have expressed interest in the program.

Automation leadership is a good fit with UW-Stout’s already strong programs and faculty in science, engineering and technology — especially expertise from the department of operations and management, which will oversee the program along with Program Director Xuejun “Jason” Liu. Three new courses have been developed for the program, but they also will dovetail with existing STEM university programs.

Professor David Ding, director of the Robert F. Cervenka School of Engineering and associate dean of the College of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Management, said the program is a perfect fit for UW-Stout.

“To increase entry points, it provides students the opportunity to start from high school all the way through options for a master’s program to become a leader in digital and automation transformation in manufacturing. UW-Stout’s mission is to prepare students for careers through applied learning and research, professional experiences, and collaborative partnerships to benefit a global society,” Ding said.

UW-Stout offers a master’s degree in operations and supply management.

The program aligns with the mission of UW-Stout’s Discovery Center, the primary outreach and engagement organization for regional businesses. The Northwest Manufacturing Outreach Center is part of the Discovery Center.

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