If the future workplace is filled with machines running on artificial intelligence and robotics, workers will be needed to create the machines, run them, and then make repairs as the robots falter.
That thinking was on display at PACK EXPO Las Vegas in September, when event organizers showcased students’ efforts to create the next generation of machines for manufacturing floors. The Future Innovators Robotics Showcase was sponsored by Bastian Solutions, a global supply chain integration company based in Indiana. Students at the showcase exhibit created a constant swirl of activity as they remotely controlled their creations buzzing around the showroom floor.
FIRST® Program on Display
Gan Korth, a student at Cimarron-Memorial High School in Las Vegas, notes that she is a member of the school’s robotics team, which is part of a nationwide program to promote sciences and technology. Known as For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST®), the program was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, an inventor and entrepreneur who has more than 1,000 U.S. and foreign patents, according to the FIRST® website. The Cimarron-Memorial High School’s FIRST® reaches students from pre-K through grade 12 to encourage them to learn about science and technology, and it does so by creating sports-like competitions.
Korth says her team, which is known as FIRST® TEAM 987, goes by the moniker High Rollers in honor of its Las Vegas location. A High Rollers brochure points out that the team is a member of the FIRST® Hall of Fame.
It also notes that the team’s annual expenses total about $66,000, leading the program to seek donations from businesses and others. As a nonprofit, FIRST® relies on volunteers, but the school’s expenses include $10,000 for the parts to build robots and $5,000 for tools, with travel expenses to enter competitions taking the biggest chunk of the budget.
Worldwide, the program reached more than 534,000 students in 2021–2022, according to a FIRST® report.
Workforce Development Initiatives
PACK EXPO Las Vegas is produced by PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, which promotes workforce development through various initiatives. For example, CareerLink, PMMI’s online job board, went live in Las Vegas, PMMI says.
“CareerLink will connect students from schools and universities with PMMI member companies looking for new talent,” according to a PMMI announcement. “This job board is the centerpiece of a new initiative aimed at raising awareness of career opportunities in the packaging and processing industry through fostering relationships with institutions, marketing the industry to students, and helping students find entry-level employment and internships.”
In its annual “State of the U.S. Flexible Packaging Industry Report,” the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) notes that access to labor remains a top concern among its members.
“The ongoing tight labor market may well drive a push toward more automation and the use of robotics in the flexible packaging industry,” the report says. “The transition may take time, however, with investment needed on the equipment development side as well as converters making upgrades to their facilities.”
More Efforts Reach Students
Other areas of the convention center at PACK EXPO Las Vegas included booths from universities, colleges, and trade schools that have packaging programs. Amid the Workforce Development section was a booth staffed by three students from Waterford Union High School in Wisconsin.
The students were showcasing their packaging machine that had won “Overall Best in Show” at PACK EXPO International in 2022 in Chicago. Jack Sadler, Zack Mettille, and Michael Struck say they were invited to Las Vegas because of their win in the contest that was called the PACK Challenge. It brought a $6,000 prize. An article about workforce development that included a closer look at that award was published by FlexPack VOICE® in early 2023.
Editor’s note: The feature image shows members of the High Rollers FIRST® TEAM 987 demonstrating their robot during the Future Innovators Robotics Showcase at PACK EXPO Las Vegas in September.
Thomas A. Barstow is senior editor of FlexPack VOICE®.