The Heartland Robotics Cluster has made great strides in the past six months, thanks to a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration's Build Back Better Program. This major injection of funds into robotics innovation enabled the seven partners to accelerate their mission and expand operations at a greater pace than before. During this period, each partner made significant progress in their respective areas:
The University of Nebraska's College of Engineering
The University of Nebraska's College of Engineering has spent the last six months planning to construct a robotics lab, including space for indoor testing of mobile robots, a small electronics workspace, a control room, and other workspaces. This will be located in the Scott Engineering Center (SEC) basement. The College has also hired two graduate students to focus on Heartland Robotics Cluster work and is looking to hire more full-time employees, including a project manager and engineers. The College is also in the early stages of developing academic curricula in robotics engineering.
In addition, the College has been creating opportunities for its students to learn about robotics in manufacturing. On March 15th, 13 students led by Dr. Santosh Pitla and Dr. Mark Riley visited MetalQuest Unlimited, Inc. in Hebron, Nebraska, for a tour. Scott Volk, a Heartland Robotics Industry Advisory Council member, gave the students the tour and demonstrated their extensive use of robots for manufacturing. MetalQuest (https://metalquest.net/) also develops logistics and plant layouts for integrating robotics in manufacturing.
Video of robots in manufacturing at MetalQuest.
Nebraska Innovation Studio
Nebraska Innovation Studio (NIS) built space for robotic prototyping equipment, including programmable robotic arms, state-of-the-art 3D printers and scanners, and electronics equipment. NIS is also hiring program directors for new programming at the maker's space. The programming will include Introduction to Automation, Introduction to Robotic Prototyping, and Introduction to Embedded Systems. The programs aim to both upskill workers and enhance the skills of would-be entrepreneurs.
The Combine & Invest Nebraska
In the past six months, The Combine and Invest Nebraska have been searching for a Program Manager to lead the AgTech Incubator and develop a robotics curriculum for startups developing robotic technologies. In Quarter 1 of 2023, The Combine successfully filled the role of the Program Manager with Josh DeMers. Josh is in the process of developing the robotics startup curriculum for the Heartland Robotics Cluster.
Metropolitan Community College
Metropolitan Community College is currently developing a K-12 curriculum for under-represented students. They plan to launch the curriculum this summer through robotics camps in partnership with after-school and summer programs. The first Freight Farm I Place can be seen below. They plan to purchase two more. Each Freight Farm has a 24-hour growing period; the yield is equivalent to two acres of land.
Northeast Community College
Work at Northeast Community College is in full swing, with its regional economic development initiative being used to support a space for our new robotics program, industry upskilling in automation, and entrepreneurial services that will allow access to resources and equipment for high schools, the community, industry, and the College. Obtaining a 17,785-square-foot space to house the Fabrication Lab was completed, and the space design is underway. Significant interaction and input from various industries and community representatives have helped to launch the development of a curriculum that will help to transform the current and future labor force with the skills needed to keep up with the growth in robotics and automation. Hiring a new director to oversee the Fabrication Lab and training opportunities will enable progress on the new curriculum to advance faster while supporting entrepreneurial efforts and community partnerships and growth.
Nebraska Manufacturing Extension Partnership
The Nebraska Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) has been working hard to obtain quotes for robotics and digital equipment in support of manufacturing needs for Nebraska manufacturers. MEP has toured several office complexes looking for space to host MEP's offices, lab space for the robots, and classrooms for classes that teach skills to the manufacturing workforce. They have successfully passed the first purchase order through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's procurement system and have entered negotiations on a suitable space.
The generous investment allocated to the Heartland Robotics Cluster has met its immediate goals and is set to have a lasting, positive impact on the Greater Heartland Region. In the past six months, the investment in Nebraska's automation infrastructure and the growing talent pipeline has kickstarted a positive trajectory for this area. We anticipate increasing levels of development and progress with each quarter. At the Heartland Robotics Cluster, we remain optimistic about our potential and prospects for making yet more meaningful advancements now and into the future.