How former coal miners became mobile robot techs

The Robot Report
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Former coal miner Matt Neace is now installing and servicing mobile robots. | Credit: Matt Neace

Matt Neace, 25, was born in Whitesburg, Ky. The small town is located in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and had a population of 1,875 in 2018. It once was known as a “diamond among the coal fields.” Coal mining long was the economic engine that fueled Whitesburg and other parts of the Appalachia region, which spans from southern New York to Alabama and is home to more than 25 million people.

According to the 2010 census, nearly 25% of Whitesburg’s population lived below the poverty line. Like many in the area, Neace was born into the coal mines. His father worked in the mines for 28 years, while his uncles drove coal trucks.

“My whole family was affiliated with the mines,” said Neace. “But I was laid off five times in my 5-plus years in the coal business. You never knew if you were going to have a job or how you’re going to pay the bills.”

Drive two hours north to Warfield, Ky. and 35-year-old Devan Parsons has a similar story. Parsons worked in the coal mines for four years before being laid off and taking a “dead-end job” at a local auto parts store. He lived with his brother-in-law during the week to shorten the commute to the coal mine and would return to Warfield on weekends. Parson’s father drove an 18-wheeler coal truck, hauling coal two hours to the loading docks a couple counties away.

“It’s hard to get a job here,” he said. “The whole place was built on coal mining. If you weren’t in the coal mines, your job was related to mining. The area is struggling right now.”

Robots are often viewed as a threat to human jobs and our future. But not in this story. This story is about how robots are providing former coal miners, like Neace and Parsons, with a second chance and bright future.

Casualties of the ‘War on Coal’

Being laid off was part of being a coal miner. Workers would eventually find work at another nearby mine, but that came to a crashing halt in 2008 when regulatory pressure from President Obama forced many coal mines to close. The industry coined this the “War on Coal,” and the business was forever damaged.

Kathy Walker moved to Eastern Kentucky 30-plus years ago from the Washington, D.C. area. She is out of the coal patch herself. For 15-plus years, she was a member of the National Coal Council, a federal advisory committee that helps shape policies about matters relating to coal. She worked for the energy division of the Italian government, purchasing U.S. coal that was then exported to Italy and other European countries. And later she started her own coal sales and marketing company.

An eKAMI student getting hands-on training. | Credit: eKAMI

“Even before 2008, I could see the train coming down the track with regard to coal,” she said. “There were increasing regulatory and political pressures, and I could slowly see a change coming, driven mainly by the utilities.”

Walker wanted to provide an opportunity for a sustainable future for the people of the region. She researched what types of work might be a fit for the culture and the workforce, and she stumbled upon CNC machining.

“Some people still think machining is your grandfather’s factory job. Well, it’s quite the opposite today,” she said. “21st century CNC machining is high-tech, it’s inspiring and challenging. It takes a little bit of a lot of different competencies to be successful at CNC machining. And what most people never realized about mining g is that you must be multi-skilled to be successful at it as well.”

eKAMI re-skills former coal miners

In 2016, Walker partnered with the Gene Haas Foundation, owned by one of the world’s largest machine-tool makers, Haas Automation, to develop a workforce training center to re-skill former miners. Hailing from Youngstown, Ohio, the former “Industrial Heartland of North America,” Gene Haas, Founder of Haas Automation, began working in a machine shop when he was 14 years old. Like the miners of Appalachia, Haas understood the importance of hard work and responsibility at an early age.

To test the miners-to-machinists concept, Walker sent three displaced workers from the industry to the flagship Haas Center at Vincennes University in Indianapolis. The 15-week immersive program was already two weeks underway when the Kentucky students arrived, but the instructors assured Walker they would work on Saturdays to help the new students catch up.

“After a week, the instructor called me and said despite joining late, they were already caught up and actually helping train other students,” Walker said. “The instructor then asked me how many other available people I had like that, and I said, ‘right now, about 10,000.’”

Prior to graduation from Vincennes, the three “pilot” students were hired by Lockheed Martin’s U.S. Special Operations division in Winchester, Kentucky. They put their new CNC skills to work machining parts for the military.

Gene Haas (left), Kathy Walker, and former Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin at the eKAMI grand opening. | Credit: eKAMI

In the fall of 2017, Walker opened the Haas eKentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute (eKAMI) in Paintsville, Ky. The 40,000-square-foot facility, located on a former coal mine site, offers an accelerated 16-week program for adults and a 9-month program for young adults. The program includes instruction in both technical and soft skills. Students train on the latest state-of-the-art CNC equipment, learning to program, set up, and operate machines that produce parts for various industries, including military and defense, robotics, aerospace, medical, and electronics. They also learn the importance of punctuality, teamwork, adaptability and leadership.

Students earn credentials from the National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS). To earn the certifications, they are required to pass online exams and produce precision parts on the CNC machines that are inspected for accuracy by an outside engineering firm.

Thanks to private and public grant funding, all local students have received scholarships to cover the tuition. At press time, Walker said approximately 100 students have graduated from the program, with a 100% placement rate.

“Not all the students are from the mining industry, but many are,” Walker said. “Many graduates are now working in manufacturing, inspecting, assembling, and programming jobs.”

From coal miners to mobile robot technicians

Many eKAMI graduates are now working for AutoGuide Mobile Robots, a Massachusetts-based developer of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) that was acquired by Teradyne in October 2019 for potentially $165 million. AutoGuide manufactures its AMRs in Kentucky. Twenty-five eKAMI graduates and former coal miners now work at AutoGuide and its premier integrator, Heartland Automation.

Neace and Parsons are two of those 25.

Neace joined AutoGuide in May 2019 as a Mobile Robot Field Service Technician. A few years ago, he was operating a roof bolter to keep a mine from collapsing. Now he is installing, programming and servicing mobile robots at customer sites across America.

“This is a dream come true,” said Neace. “eKAMI gave me a whole new world — a career and a future. We have robots in Alabama, Georgia, New York, South Carolina, Texas, and the Teradyne acquisition will have us going overseas soon. I’ve never been out of the country, so that will be new for me. I’ve been wanting to get out and see the world, and this job allows me to do so. I can’t wait.”

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Matt Neace (left) and Darrell Easter working on an AutoGuide autonomous mobile robot. | Credit: AutoGuide

Walker said AutoGuide is the only pure-play robotics company that has hired eKAMI graduates. Rob Sullivan, President and CEO of AutoGuide, said the company hires a few people from every eKAMI graduating class.

“We’re a high-tech robotics company getting resources from the coal mines of Kentucky. We did it out of necessity,” said Sullivan. “It was hard to find resources. We found out about eKAMI, and it’s been a nice way to find skilled resources for manufacturing and installations.”

Parsons started at AutoGuide on Jan. 1, 2020 as a Mobile Robot Technician. He was running a shuttle car in the deep mines at the end of his mining days. Now he is working in the shipping and receiving department and is learning to assemble AutoGuide’s mobile robots at its office in Georgetown, Ky.

“When you go into an underground mine, you’re not 100% sure you’re going to come back out,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about robotics before this. I’ve always been pretty good mechanically, so I was able to transfer what I picked up in class into my job. I’m excited to see how far I can go and see how the technology grows.”

‘Gold mine of talent’

Darrell Easter is Assembly Department Lead at AutoGuide. He joined the company in May 2019 after graduating from eKAMI. The 56-year-old had a 20-year career in oil and gas, but recently moved to Paintsville, his wife’s hometown.

“To be honest, many folks in Appalachia didn’t worry about getting an education,” he said. “You don’t need an education to work in the mines; you just need a strong back.”

Perhaps that is now starting to change.

Walker said eKAMI’s ultimate goal is to open the door to provide advanced manufacturing opportunities to the region’s re-skilled workforce. “We’re changing people’s lives and, hopefully, changing the trajectory of Appalachia forever,” she said. “A lot of people now have hope, which is a very strong motivator.

“The overarching goal of eKAMI is to diversify the economy of Eastern Kentucky by attracting industry to the area. Word is spreading about the exceptionally skilled, innovative, and motivated workforce. We’re truly sitting on a gold mine of talent.”

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