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Robotics center to build upon tech leaders’ hopes

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published March 8, 2019

Piece by piece, the plans and components of a future robotics collaboration center are being assembled in Sterling Heights.

During the Feb. 5 City Council meeting, Sterling Heights Senior Economic Development Adviser Luke Bonner said the city and Macomb County have been working on a plan over the past two years to put a new research and development hub in Sterling Heights. The facility will be called the Macomb Robotics Collaboration Center, and it will be located at the Velocity collaboration center.

“The purpose of the Robotics Collaboration Center is, truthfully, all about talent, and the purpose of the center is creating a long-term pipeline that will fuel the companies in the region, and that will fuel innovation for years to come,” Bonner said.  

Bonner backed up his enthusiasm with a 2016 Automation Alley tech report that said tech CEOs are bullish on Michigan due to a better business climate, lower real estate costs, and access to educational institutions with strong robotics programs, like the University of Michigan, the University of Detroit Mercy, Lawrence Technological University and Oakland University. 

Bonner said Michigan leads the country overall for FIRST Robotics teams with more than 500. But he said Macomb County only has 16 teams, despite having the well-known ThunderChickens Robotics Club. He said the county is “woefully under-represented,” largely due to a lack of mentors and funding.

“There isn’t enough teams in Macomb County, and this Robotics Collaboration Center is definitely going to help,” he said. 

He added that the project partners have looked at benchmark robotics programs such as GRid70 in Grand Rapids, as well as the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

Bonner mentioned that while the prevailing belief is that many young people shy away from manufacturing, software engineers at Silicon Valley have been “super enthusiastic” about manufacturing lately.

Bonner said the robotics center will have an emphasis linking businesses to K-12 student education, particularly when it comes to software and robotics.

“There’s a lot of technology in a robot: There are sensors, there’s software, electrical on parts; there’s mechanical engineering; and there’s the actual machining and manufacturing of the robot and making it do something,” Bonner said. 

“So the center is focused on — let’s use the robot, really, just kind of as the vehicle — but really it’s all the technology that goes into it.”

Bonner said Macomb County is working with consultants to put together a nonprofit to run the robotics center while seeking out private-sector partners and funders. The effort will also need an executive director, he said.

“We are also looking at the space requirements at Velocity to see if there’s any alterations that we have to make for any machinery and equipment or lab space that needs to go in there,” he said.

City Manager Mark Vanderpool called the prospects of a Robotics Collaboration Center “very exciting.”

“We’ll be hearing much more about the collaborative as it comes together over the next year and the structure is actually formed and the buildout begins,” he said.

At the Feb. 19 City Council meeting, resident Charles Jefferson said the city needs to have something similar for the trades. 

“We need that because (science, technology, engineering and math) people don’t tend to build houses … or come out and fix your plumbing or fix your car,” Jefferson said. “We need that here in Sterling Heights, so hopefully we can get something like that done.”

Find out more about the Velocity collaboration center in Sterling Heights by visiting oakland.edu/macombouinc/velocity-center.