The transformation of the agricultural sector, in what is also becoming a highly automated work environment in produce processing and packaging, requires a tech-savvy, skilled workforce. With tech innovation outpacing workforce development, the technical skills gap that currently exists is putting a strain on many agricultural communities.

“We need 1,000 people right now that we don’t have,” said Clint Cowden, Dean of Academic Affairs for Hartnell College. “The mechanical innovation is here, but who’s trained to use it?”

After touring modern manufacturing and produce processing and packaging facilities, Cowden and the Hartnell team began seeking out the type of learning equipment needed to educate and train students for the future of work. “Instead of focusing on price, we focused on who can fulfill the skills training and build the biggest and best product. We knew we needed a partner who was up-to-speed on Industry 4.0, then we found Festo,” Mr. Cowden explained.

Hartnell’s community college students will soon receive a customized Cyber-Physical Factory learning system from Festo Didactic. The simulated Smart Factory includes integrated logistics, communication, mechatronics, robotic assembly and troubleshooting capabilities. It’s fully networked and virtually integrated with HMI (human-machine interface), PLCs, Data Acquisition, Collection and Analysis (SCADA) and wireless connection networking. The factory also utilizes material handling robots with infrared vision capability for advanced robotic training.

In regards to local industry partners, Hartnell received crucial seed funding from Taylor Farms in 2019 to help jumpstart its Manufacturing Technology program. Rio Farms has also made long-term investments to impact Hartnell’s graduate pipeline.

For the future, Cowden said that the college is trying to work with middle school and high school teachers to show them what the college is doing and expose them to Industry 4.0 to build a strong student pipeline of future graduates who will enter into these programs.