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Moraine Park opens Automation, Innovation and Robotics Center

MPTC strives to push Wisconsin workforce forward

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February 6, 2024

FOND DU LAC — The future — that is what President Bonnie Baerwald said Moraine Park Technical College (MPTC) is focused on with the opening of its Automation, Innovation and Robotics (AIR) Center — one of four projects made possible through a referendum.

Recognizing the gaps the region has been seeing with its workforce, Baerwald said MPTC saw it as a chance to introduce new technology, which they proposed to their industry partners.

“They were all discussing ways they could do more with fewer people,” she said. “That generated a conversation about Moraine Park Technical College — how can we partner with them to do more in that space, so we can automate a lot of our lower-level functions and try to figure out how we can continue to do more and be more efficient in our productivity.”

Baerwald said for MPTC, it was “an opportunity” — and the idea of the AIR Center was born.

With plans originating in late 2020 — during the COVID-19 pandemic — Baerwald said it was evident employers were “obviously struggling with maintaining workforce talent because of the great resignation and some of the other things going on in the economy.”

“This was an opportunity for us,” she said.

Just the beginning
Baerwald said the AIR Center is only one part of MPTC’s $55-million referendum approved by the community — efforts of which she said were supported by the tech’s industry partners.

“We took those conversations (to) the steering committee — individuals from some of our higher or more advanced manufacturing companies to talk about what they are working on,” she said. “(Learning more about) what they feel their next generation of workforce talent’s needs are regarding more advanced manufacturing.”

Much of the feedback MPTC received, Baerwald said, focused on quality production, robotics and automation.

“With their help, we put together a long-term plan to take a look at how we can help our employers succeed in their economic development needs and maintain and educate their current and future workforce,” she said. “We were 100% focused on what we could do differently to partner with our industry partners in manufacturing to help them grow and succeed.”

The referendum’s four areas of focus are:

A fire training facility in HoriconManufacturing, Automation and Robotics Lab in West BendAdvanced Manufacturing and Trades Center (which includes The AIR Center)A health and human services facility in Fond du Lac
“Passing the referendum was difficult,” she said. “We were excited to realize we had passed at a significant rate.”

Baerwald said the referendum was almost two years in the making.

“Initially, we had five projects on our list, to the price tag of about $65 million,” she said. “The feedback from the initial random survey was that the taxpayers who responded to the survey would not necessarily support one of the five projects. We didn’t want to risk losing the remaining four projects, so we scaled back our ideas down to four projects.”

The fifth project, Baerwald said, was for a regional training center in Green Lake County.

“We wanted to leverage a regional center where the small school district could send their students, so we would have large enough cohorts to offer classes — but there was a lot of conversation that the school districts didn’t have the resources to send their students to us, nor did they have the time allotments in their classrooms scheduled to do that,” she said. “So, there were a lot of barriers to that one and, frankly, I think the taxpayers didn’t see a strong need to build a regional center out there.”

Baerwald said much of referendum work is “communication.”

“We gave a lot of presentations to service organizations, business leaders, community-based organizations, city councils, county boards — you name it, we were out there trying to tell our story,” she said. “So, it was a lot of work, but the rewards are worth it.”

Industry-influenced curriculum
Baerwald said MPTC set a goal of $2.5 million in donations from the community to build the AIR Center and exceeded that amount by almost $200,000.

In turn, she said MPTC worked with those industry partners and donors to build a curriculum, which would prepare students for the industry standard.

President Bonnie Baerwald said MPTC set a goal of $2.5 million in donations from the community to build the AIR Center and exceeded that amount by almost $200,000. Photo Courtesy of MPTC

“Some of the donors were part of the steering committee we talked to upfront as to what kind of competencies they were looking for in our graduates — (which) we used to build out some new curriculum pathways,” she said. “We also added a two-year associate’s degree, and then broke that down into smaller credentials we call career pathways.”

Last year, Baerwald said MPTC began working with local high schools to encourage students to take courses through the college, providing them with the opportunity to enter the workforce with credentials immediately after graduation.

“The intent is we would partner with a high school on a career pathway,” she said. “Let’s say it’s a certificate of 20 credits — maybe the first nine credits can be taken at the high school and for the remaining 11 credits, students would have to come here to our campus and utilize the equipment and technology in our new AIR Center.”

This, Baerwald said, would allow high school students to potentially graduate with a credentialed certificate.

“He or she may be able to go into the workforce upon graduation from high school, or continue their education here to get their full two-year degree in robotics or advanced manufacturing,” she said. “Or they could even take those credentials and — in some cases, we have partnerships or transfer agreements with four-year colleges — take some of those credits to those colleges as well.”

Moving forward, Baerwald said Moraine Park hopes to expand its reach.

“We started with the Fond du Lac School District, but we are now hoping to expand that this coming year with other schools,” she said.

AIR Center opening
The AIR Center, Baerwald said, opened Jan. 29 — the first day of spring semester.

“So, students came back to campus and though we’re not 100% utilizing the space to its true capacity yet, we are teaching students in it,” she said. “And we’ll continue to enhance the space over this coming semester, but we reached our goal to have it open at the start of spring semester.”

Baerwald said the AIR Center is part of the Advanced Manufacturing and Trades Center focus of the referendum, which also involves a remodel of the current manufacturing wing.

“The goal was to finish the AIR Center by mid-December so we could start moving existing equipment in, as well as put in place some brand new equipment we had ordered to have time to set everything up and connect everything properly for the start of the semester,” she said.

Baerwald said as soon as the addition was done — which was right around mid-December — construction crews then refocused their work on the remodeling of the existing trades and manufacturing wings.

“So that project, phase two, started mid-December, and we hope to have that wrapped up by this May,” she said.

Some of the new equipment the AIR Center offers students, Baerwald said, includes 3D printers, hydraulic trainers and welding units.

“We added a lot of robotics into that space,” she said. “We transitioned some of our existing CNC (machines) and some of the additional advanced manufacturing equipment over there.”

Many of the units, Baerwald said, are mobile trainers — “so we can train here on campus and out in the field as well.”

“We have FANUC robotics certification carts, 3D printers, conveyor systems, measuring equipment that we purchased, some additional welding units, some PLC and hydraulic trainers and simulation software,” she said.

Baerwald said MPTC is also introducing integrated manufacturing cells, where students from all different programs — design to manufacturing to quality control — come together to create a product.

“We currently do this today, but we only have one manufacturing cell,” she said. “We want to add a few more manufacturing cells to the space. We take students from the mechanical design program and combine those students with the CNC students who create the product, and then we also bring students together from the quality and manufacturing programs. So all the programs work together and those students will decide on a product they want to build.”

Once cells are assembled, Baerwald said students work together to design and manufacture a project, which they then run through an automated robotics center.

“It gives them more real-world experience,” she said. “We are also investing in quality equipment because we have a separate lab that is quality control. So, testing the variances on the products they build to make sure the tolerance is within the specs provided by the customer.”

Baerwald said MPTC partnered with C.D. Smith, a Fond du Lac construction company, for the AIR Center’s construction.

Bonnie Baerwald

“Working with C.D. Smith Construction has been outstanding,” she said. “They are headquartered here in Fond du Lac. Typically, they do work nationally on large projects. We have not historically had the opportunity to work with them because our projects have been rather small. But this one has a financial footprint that someone like C.D. Smith has been able to resource. Because they’re local, the workers love the fact they can work locally and not have to travel for weeks at a time to other states or other communities so they can be close to home close to family. So it’s been outstanding. They’ve done a phenomenal job for us.”

Despite the smooth partnership with C.D. Smith, Baerwald said the project did encounter some obstacles — namely, supply chain issues.

“Early on, we weren’t able to get the steel as we had anticipated, but C.D. Smith worked its magic and were able to get us some steel with not a lot of wait time,” she said. “The other issue we had was there’s a lot of glass in the exteriors in the new AIR Center addition. And because of some changes in ownership of the glass company we sourced with, the glass was delayed. In fact, we had to put in temporary glass earlier this month so we could heat up the space and finish some of the inside work.”

Once the correct glass is available, Baerwald said, the temporary glass will be replaced.

“Luckily, those are a couple of things we can work around, so we met the deadlines regardless of the delay,” she said.

Though the AIR Center is open to students, Baerwald said MPTC wonít complete all of the other referendum projects until January 2027.

As things continue to move forward, she said MPTC is always open to making new community connections.

“We are constantly looking for new opportunities to partner with not only employers but our high school partners, our Collegiate Transfer Partners,” she said. “We want to do what’s best for the learners within our district, and to allow everybody to pick an educational journey that makes sense for themÖ We’re going to do our best to ensure you know we’re working with our employers to enhance their economic success.”

To learn more about Moraine Park Technical College, the AIR Center and the tech’s other referendum projects, visit

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