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Showing the way: Robot builder provides career signpost to STEM students

Fourteen secondary students from two schools in Colchester – Stanway and Thomas Lord Audley – got the chance to showcase their robotic skills during a recent open day hosted at packing automation designer and manufacturer Pacepacker Services. During a tour of the Essex-based factory on the 14th July, the students were encouraged to investigate the exciting range of career opportunities that STEM study opens up to them. And with senior people from three of the UK’s top robotic engineering companies in attendance – including Pacepacker’s collaborators Festo and FANUC – they were able to get a varied perspective on engineering career pathways within the packing industry.

The eager pupils, who made this year’s VEX Robotics competition shortlist, built their own circuit controls and used a robot to hold their mobile phones and take photographs and videos of themselves exploring the work environment.

With the global advanced manufacturing market predicted to double in size to £750 billion by 2020, largely driven by developments in robotics and 3D printing, the ability to translate digital design into real-world production are set to be some of the most important skills in the future according to a 2015 report by UKCES*. Like many in the sector, Pacepacker is keen to demonstrate the ladders of opportunity and the types of roles that will be in demand.

Pacepacker’s very own award-winning apprentice success story Andrew Lufkin explained to the captive audience why he chose ‘on-the-job’ training with Pacepacker over soaring university fees. “Apprenticeships are an eye opener to the working world: it’s taught me discipline, punctuality, how to prioritise and accountability.” They were also able to quiz graduate and Mechanical Design Engineer Andrew Westrop who took the university pathway. “It’s exciting to be part of such an innovative engineering team and I enjoyed sharing my experiences with the students,” said Andrew.

“The organisation of the day was great and kept the students interested and motivated to find out more about the companies and they were enlightened as to how engineering could be relevant to their careers,” reflects Claire Fisher, STEM co-ordinator at Thomas Lord Audley School. “They particularly enjoyed the hands on activities and the talk from Pacepacker’s graduate and apprentice for inspiring them to look into different Post-16 options in the future. We have closed the end of term on a real high, full of enthusiasm for the STEM projects in the next academic year.”

Dr Helen Marr, STEM coordinator at The Stanway School concludes: "The students were very excited to see the design software and how it could be used to design their VEX robots. This tool will allow them to see their designs in 3D and how each section will work before building them and will definitely improve the depth and quality of their design notebooks."

As part of the experience Pacepacker introduced the students to Solidworks software which the company uses to create prototype robot designs. An alternative to CAD software currently used by the students, Solidworks enables designers to be more innovative whilst also applying their STEM skills. Seeing how swiftly the students took to the technology, Pacepacker on the spot agreed to sponsor the first year’s Solidworks license for both school’s robotic groups.

Throughout the day the students were encouraged to get hands on with some of the newest technology, including operating a FANUC robot arm, Festo end effectors (the robot’s hand) and a Pacepacker Blu-Robot (a second-user reconditioned unit).

Commenting on the success of the day, host Dennis Allison, Managing Director of Pacepacker emphasised: “Everything starts with an idea and STEM subjects are used throughout the entire process, from design through to installation. It was a pleasure to see how inquisitive these young students’ minds are and how fast their skills are developing. For a growing company like ours it’s reassuring to see so much fresh engineering talent in the pipeline.”

Cllr Penny Channer, Essex County Council Deputy Cabinet member for Economic Growth and Infrastructure thanked Pacepacker and its robotic partners Festo and FANUC for supporting the initiative: “This exciting day of robotics was sparked by the work of Essex Employment and Skills Board Education and Industry STEM programme. It’s one of many fantastic events aimed at encouraging young people into engineering so that we have a workforce in the future with the skills our industry needs.”

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