OGDEN — High school teams from around the state — most of them from Northern Utah — met at Ogden-Weber Technical College Thursday to wage robot battles with bots they built as part of the Rocky Mountain Robotics League 2019 competition.
In each round of the competition, two remote-controlled robots battled it out in a transparent plastic cage, attempting to do as much damage as possible to their competitor.
During each round, one member of each team controlled the team’s robot while the others cheered him on, occasionally recommending offensive and defensive moves. In between rounds, teams took their robots back to their workspaces to rapidly repair them.
The winning team was from Green Canyon High School in North Logan.
In past competitions, more sparks flew, but this year many teams built defensive, tank-like bots. Fewer teams chose to include offensive “weapons” like spinning blades and whacking hammers.
“I like that we got to design it, and then we got to see what our designs turned into,” said Josh McCain, a senior at Roy High who participated on a combined Roy-Bonneville team. “Knowing that we built this with our own bare hands, and it’s the fruit of our labors — it’s good to see something you worked so hard on do well.”
Some teams were sponsored by local companies, who paid for their materials, and others were primarily supported by their schools. This is the fourth year of the competition, and organizers would like to double the number of teams that participate next year.
While the attraction for many participants is the fun of the competition, they also gain marketable skills.
The local machining industry supports the competition through the Northern Utah chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Association (NTMA).
The same group pays for the winning Utah team to compete in the national competition, which involves about 80 teams from across the country.
Industry is so closely involved because they are having difficulty finding skilled machinists to employ.
“It’s a crisis,” said Matt Wardle, president of JD Machine in Ogden. “Our major limiting factor in growth is skilled labor.”
“Every shop I know has multiple openings,” said Reid Leland, founder and president of LeanWerks Manufacturing and Engineering. “We have four openings.”
The machining process, which is now computerized, takes material, usually metal or plastic, and removes parts of the material in order to create component parts for a range of products.
“Pretty much anything you touch has had some kind of a start in machining—your pen, there’s a mold that had to be made,” Wardle said. “Machining would create the component parts for the machine that makes your clothing — it’s something just not a lot of people know about.”
Machining positions are also good jobs. They start at $14 an hour, and a skilled machinist makes about $30 an hour.
Many machine shops also offer on-the-job training. JD Machine has a formal 4-year apprenticeship. The program begins in the classroom at Ogden-Weber Technical College and continues as apprentices work at JD Machine. Apprentices earn a pay increase every six months in the program.
“We’ll hire them with no experience, we’ll put them to work, and also we’ll send them to school,” Wardle said. Participants can work full or part time at JD Machine throughout their apprenticeships.
Machining is also a pathway into engineering.
“An engineer that’s been a machinist is worth their weight in gold,” Wardle said, though some taking this path enjoy machining so much that they don’t pursue engineering training.
Bryant Davis is the chapter president of Northern Utah chapter of NTMA and the president of Brendell Manufacturing located in North Salt Lake. He says there are only a few things he needs to know to determine if someone might make a good machinist.
“One of the questions I ask is ‘do you drive a car?’ and ‘do you work on that car?’” Davis said. “I have found that anybody that likes to tinker with things — a lawnmower engine, a car engine — they have the potential to be a great machinist.”
There was one element that all of the teams at the competition were lacking, though. There weren’t any girls.
Charlie Nielsen, Career and Technical Education Director at Bonneville High School, said that girls participate in the necessary courses, but they don’t tend to join the robotics teams, even when invited.
Hope Wheelwright is an exception to that rule. She was in attendance at the robotics competition, and she participated three years ago on the Bonneville-Roy team in the 2016 when she was a junior at Roy school. She was the only girl on her team.
Wheelwright said that she joined the team because she loved “working with metal,” and she likes “everything” about building robots. When she was a sophomore, she got the highest score in her class on the machining state competency exam.
She said that she wants girls who are interested in machining to know that “gender does not matter” when it comes to success in machining. “Follow your dreams,” she said.
A week after the competition in her junior year, Wheelwright was in an accident that has prevented her from continuing her training in the field, but she still attends the robot competitions and wants to continue to be involved in the future if possible.
McCain, one of the members of the Roy-Bonneville team, said he’s interested in medicine or engineering as a long-term career. He is planning to work in a machine shop to put himself through college regardless of which path he takes.
“This is a huge resource here for our community,” Wardle said. “So many people think that you have to have a four-year degree to do well, but the machinists that get some training at the tech college and come to work, they don’t have any student debt, and they make great money in a very clean, safe environment.”