Big-box store turned advanced technology center ushers in new programs, supports Lake County workforce, and upends stereotypes about industrial manufacturing.
Massive press brakes that bend metal. Ovens that reach 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Robotic welding systems. Laser cutters. Programmable logic controllers. These are just a few examples of the $5.5 million worth of industry-grade equipment within College of Lake County’s (CLC) new Advanced Technology Center (ATC) in Gurnee, Illinois. And all this equipment converges in a warehouse-turned-educational-hub that transforms viewpoints about college and industrial manufacturing training.
The ATC, designed by Legat Architects and built by Power Construction Company, is a training ground for high-skill, high-wage, high-demand manufacturing jobs in Lake County.
The center not only enables CLC’s long-standing welding program to offer daytime welding classes during the week for the first time, but it also introduces new class offerings including a fabrication component and an entire lab dedicated to industrial maintenance technology, which CLC officials identified as the number one request from local industry.
“The college’s investment in the ATC aligns programming with Lake County’s most in-demand jobs,” said CLC President Dr. Lori Suddick. “It gives our students new opportunities to build rewarding careers in Lake County, while also supporting our thriving manufacturing business in this region.”
Students who take classes in the ATC have many options: They can obtain a certificate to boost their value in an existing job. They can earn an associate degree and enter the manufacturing industry workforce. They can transfer to pursue a four-year degree.
Though it has only been open six months, the ATC has drawn interest from organizations ranging from pharmaceutical companies and metal fabricators to equipment manufacturers and technical colleges. And the ATC’s reach goes far beyond college students — among those poised to benefit from its programs and spaces are high school students, local businesses, and community organizations.
“The ATC is the missing puzzle piece to creating Lake County’s workforce of the future,” said Dr. Andrew Warrington, CEO of UCC Environmental. “It enables us to rapidly increase our pool of skilled workers, and they’ll have a clear pathway to well-paying careers.”
Retrofit Saves Time and Costs in the Thick of the Pandemic
CLC’s needs analysis revealed Lake County to be the second-largest manufacturing county in Illinois. The county generates nearly $50 billion in economic output annually, and one in seven jobs within the county relates to manufacturing, according to the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association.
“The data clearly showed we were not graduating enough students with credentials, certifications, and degrees to meet advanced manufacturing workforce needs,” said Ali O’Brien, CLC’s vice president of community and workforce partnerships. “If we wanted to support this part of our county’s economy, we needed to produce more students in the manufacturing sector. The only way to do that was to find more space.”
The college’s investment in the ATC aligns programming with Lake County’s most in-demand jobs.Dr. Lori Suddick,
CLC Interim Executive Dean of Educational Affairs Dr. Richard Ammon paved the way for a connection with the National Coalition of Advanced Technology Centers (NCATC), which advised the college on the programming and spaces needed to achieve its goal. Focus groups including staff, board members, municipalities, and business partners finished just before the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.
Key to realizing CLC’s objectives was occupying a facility as quickly as possible. The college purchased a vacant big-box store and kicked off discussions with longtime architectural partner Legat Architects about retrofitting the building.
“Building a new facility from scratch would have taken far too long, especially with all the COVID-related supply chain issues,” said O’Brien.
According to Legat project manager Michael Lundeen, designing a project of this size typically takes 11 months. Lundeen and the Legat team completed the design of the ATC in half that time. “It was an incredibly fast schedule for a project of this size and complexity,” he said.
Construction speed was equally impressive: it started in October 2021 and finished in September 2022. Power Construction Company, knowing the toll that COVID would take on the supply chain, secured steel and precast planks as early as possible. Supply chain disruptions did not impact that portion of the construction.
Retrofitting the big-box store also saved costs. The project retained the exterior walls and roof system, plus the warehouse’s overhead doors proved useful for bringing in large equipment and building supplies. Additionally, though it was modified to accommodate the new equipment, the warehouse’s ventilation system reduced the engineering costs.
The facility location also factored into the college’s decision: CLC’s main campus is just an eight-minute drive from the ATC, and two public bus routes stop near the facility. The proximity enables the college to easily move resources, such as academic success advisors or financial aid staff, to meet the needs of students attending exclusively at the ATC. As a bonus, the ATC shares a parking lot with a new Cooper’s Hawk restaurant, whose head chef happens to be a CLC alum.
Bright, Clean, and Safe: A Change in Perception
Mention manufacturing facilities to many people, and they might conjure images of rusty machinery, cramped spaces, and very little natural light.
“If we haven’t had a family member work in a modern manufacturing facility, we tend to hold misconceptions around dark, dirty, and dangerous environments,” said O’Brien.
Such misconceptions are dispelled the moment visitors enter the Advanced Technology Center and experience its wide-open, two-story atrium. Natural light washes over student seating areas and large window walls display the labs and their equipment. The design capitalizes on the warehouse’s high-bay ceilings and adds skylights that automatically tint based on the sun’s intensity.
“The 10,000-square-foot atrium at the heart of the building maintains the open, industrial feel of the former space,” said Legat design principal Ted Haug. “It’s a ‘wow’ space to energize potential students and Lake County businesses about the programs offered by visually connecting them to all the activity within the labs.”
Throughout the atrium, students find spaces to study, meet with faculty, or simply hang out. One restroom even has showers for students who might be coming or going to work.
The sense of openness carries through to the facility’s Welding and Fabrication Technology Lab and Industrial Technology Lab. Unlike the manufacturing facility of yesterday, the ATC’s labs enable teams of students to safely walk around the equipment. Moreover, large windows and newly installed skylights bring natural light to the students.
Accessible to everyone from K-12 students and their parents to high school counselors and community members, this building promises to change the perception of manufacturing in Lake County.Dr. Richard Ammon,
CLC Interim Executive Dean of Educational Affairs
Miguel Mireles, interim dean for CLC’s Engineering, Math and Physical Sciences Division, said the ATC also combats the view that industrial manufacturing jobs are solely for men.
“If a young woman wants to get into welding but her parents resist because of stereotypes that welding is dirty, low-paying, and dangerous, then her dream gets put on hold,” he said. “When they come here and experience the ATC, they might change their minds.”
The college’s efforts to shift views about industrial manufacturing extend to its high school partners by offering classes through the college’s Dual Credit program.
“Everything is brand new and industry grade — they feel like they’re in a high-tech environment, and they are,” said O’Brien. “Those students will share their experiences here with their families, friends, counselors, and teachers.”
Thanks to its atrium, the ATC has started hosting events for external groups such as the Lake County Workforce Development Board and Lake County Partners (economic development agency). O’Brien anticipates the ATC welcoming future events ranging from sales and career expos to engineering robot wars — she even envisions drone competitions filling the two-story space.
An Industry Snapshot: Welding and Fabrication Lab
CLC has operated a welding program for decades. Most recently, it shared an 8,000-square-foot space with the Lake County Tech Campus on the college’s main campus in Grayslake, Illinois.
However, because high school students were there during the day, CLC could only offer welding classes at night and on weekends. It was a major drawback: many potential students were only available for daytime courses on weekdays. Moreover, space restrictions limited the ability to bring in new equipment to complement legacy technology and adapt to modern business needs. The existing space had no equipment for fabrication (rolling, bending, and cutting metal), which goes hand in hand with welding.
The ATC’s new, 27,000-square-foot Welding and Fabrication Technology Lab offers a completely different experience. As occupants within the atrium approach this lab, tall window slots display robotic welding machines and laser cutters. Students at the lab’s core shape and mold metal in giant press brakes within the fabrication zone, while those in the back of the lab master their welding skills in one of 44 welding booths. Scattered throughout the lab are flexible learning zones.
“This is a snapshot of what you’d see in the industry,” said Karsten Illg, Welding Department chair.
The additional equipment and larger space enable instructors to give students a more personalized learning experience. For example, instead of a team of six operating one piece of equipment, three teams of two work on three units. Additionally, entire classes can work on the same equipment at the same time, which enables instructors to tighten their focus.
The skills that students gain within this lab will prepare them for careers such as vehicle or furniture manufacturing, pharmaceutical facility pipe welding, bridge building, and even artistic fields.
Illg said many CLC students in the welding program find work at job shops, which are small businesses that make custom-built parts for larger manufacturers. A manufacturer of tractors, for instance, might commission a job shop for an order of 10,000 doors.
The Welding and Fabrication Technology Lab houses another space new to CLC: a metallurgy lab.
“The metallurgy lab is far beyond anything we’ve done before,” said Illg. “It lets students test the strength of their welds and understand what’s happening on a molecular level.”
Illg confirms the impact that the lab and ATC in general have had on local industry. “We’ve been met with overwhelming interest from organizations wanting to be a part of what we’re doing here,” he said.
The Ultimate Troubleshooter: Industrial Technology Lab
During a tour of the ATC’s Industrial Technology Lab, a visitor said that when her husband was employed by a large consumer goods manufacturer, he worked with hundreds of switches. “It would take forever,” she said.
CLC industrial technology instructor Mike Kurschner pointed at a programmable logic controller (PLC). “These do all that instantly.”
The industrial computers, which scan at one one-thousandth of a second, are used to program everything from traffic lights to assembly line tasks like filling ice cream containers or sorting and counting pills.
The PLCs are just one of many pieces of equipment found in the Industrial Technology Lab, which O’Brien said was the number one request from CLC’s business partners. Students in the brand-new program learn how to install, maintain, operate, diagnose, and repair equipment used in manufacturing industries. The lab offers equipment such as electrical and mechanical systems, piping, pumps, motors, pneumatics, and hydraulics systems. And like the neighboring lab, faculty offices are interspersed within the training zones for better connections between instructors and students.
“I think of the industrial technician as the ultimate troubleshooter of manufacturing facilities,” said O’Brien. “If something breaks down on the automation line, that’s where these professionals come in.”
“There is a lot in this lab,” added ATC Director Jon Hardbarger. “Every time a manufacturer walks through here, they’re hooked. They’re constantly asking for students who know how to do this.”
A Business Sandbox: Partnerships Toward Progress
On the north side of the ATC stretches a massive unfinished warehouse space. The college is now raising funds to transform this space into Phase II of the ATC. Among the future components that CLC’s leadership envisions are precision machining, automation, robotics, CNC lab, mechatronics, and perhaps even a small business center.
Phase II also includes upper-level labs and classrooms, as well as a conference room that overlooks the spaces, giving prime views of the training happening within the labs below.
“We want to bring our industry partners in to help us dream and design alongside our architects,” said O’Brien. She anticipates the ATC will become a “business sandbox” for manufacturers to test new pieces of equipment, vendors to get exposure, and employers to start building relationships with future employees.
Organizations have already started contacting ATC staff about obtaining full-time employees. However, just as important as placing students is developing more partnerships with local industries.
“It’s great when local companies want to get students started on a career,” said Illg, “but we also want employers to get more involved in the ATC. There are many opportunities: donating equipment, funding scholarships, participating in job fairs, joining our advisory committee, welcoming our students for tours, or offering apprenticeship opportunities.”
This Is College
Research repeatedly bears out that members of the workforce armed with college degrees or credentials earn more and achieve more over the course of their careers. Still, many people cling to the deeply ingrained belief that college is not for everyone.
“I challenge anyone to look at a robotic welder or an assembly line automation cell and think about what level of training the ATC offers,” said O’Brien. “Guess what: it is college-level learning.”
During her October 2022 State of the College address delivered in the ATC, Dr. Lori Suddick confronted the dated notion head-on. “I hope that this facility serves to defeat the myth that college isn’t for everyone,” she said. “Hands-on career and technical education is college. This is college.”
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