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story.lead_photo.caption Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks Friday during a grant announcement at the World Trade Center in Rogers. The U.S. Economic Development Administration announced three grants at the event, which will help pay for a new bridge in Benton County, the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce Robotics Training Center and the promotion of trade for Arkansas companies through the trade center. - Photo by Ben Goff

ROGERS -- A new center to teach Northwest Arkansas workers to program, operate and fix advanced industrial robots will open in Fayetteville in the fall, in the former headquarters of the city's chamber of commerce.

Photo by Ben Goff
Joe Willis, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development district, speaks Friday during a grant announcement at the World Trade Center Arkansas in Rogers
Photo by Ben Goff
Jorge Ayala, director of the Austin, Texas, regional office of the U.S. Economic Development Administration, speaks Friday during a grant announcement at the World Trade Center in Rogers.

The chamber's project was one of three recipients of $1.4 million in grants announced Friday by the regional director of the federal Economic Development Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce. A grant to replace Spanker Creek bridge in northern Benton County and $400,000 to the World Trade Center in Rogers, which helps Arkansas businesses find export markets, were the other two grant recipients.

"We won," Benton County Judge Bob Clinard quipped at the announcement, which was held at the trade center. The $551,000 grant for the bridge replacement was the largest of the three, but will pay only an estimated half the project's cost. The bridge goes over the creek on Spanker Road just before it intersects Benton County 40. "Half is way better than all," Clinard said of paying the remaining cost, saying the new bridge will ride three feet higher than the old one and be more durable. The bridge is still in the design stage and no completion date was announced.

The robotics center will be the only place between Houston and Birmingham, Ala., that will be able to train operators certified by two of the largest robotics firms in the world, said Steve Clark of the Fayetteville Chamber director. The two firms that will set the curriculum and certify those who successfully graduate are ABB Robotics and Fanuc Robotics, he said. ABB is primarily a Swedish company, but its headquarters is in Zurich, Switzerland. Fanuc Robotics is headquartered in Oshino, Japan.

Properly programmed, the machines can perform tasks as delicate as picking out a certain color of M&M's candy from a pile and sorting them in any specific order, Clark said.

"The machines we'll be using are small enough to fit in our building, but if you learn to program them correctly, the same skill will work on the same type of machine that can lift up a car body on an assembly line and put it where in needs to be," he said.

The $450,000 grant will go to buy the equipment, Clark said.

"There are 2,000 robots working within 100 miles of where we are today," Clark said.

Arkansas companies interested in expanding into robotics include food processing companies. Workers packaging poultry products, for instance, often have to work in freezing temperature to keep the food fresh. Robots can do such work without concern for exposure to cold.

There's no danger having Northwest Arkansas companies investing in robots will cut workers out of the job market, Clark said, because having a robotics center in the region will attract industry. A high school graduate can complete the needed training in 90 days or less, he said. Also, the center will be able to stay open weekends and nights, depending on demand. Clark said he expects the facility to certify the first technicians in October.

The old chamber headquarters is at 123 Mountain St. on the town square in Fayetteville, near city hall.

Much of the grant money came from federal taxpayer money left over from disaster relief appropriations, said Jorge Ayala of Austin, Texas, regional director of the development administration. Therefore, much of the money had to be spent for emergency-related purposes, he said.

The bridge project qualified because the structure was so damaged by repeated flooding it often requires extensive repair. Also, having that portion of road flooded blocks a major route between Bella Vista and Bentonville, Ayala said.

The grant for promoting exports will help businesses throughout the state hurt by recent weather-related flooding and other disasters, he said. The Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District, headquartered in Harrison, applied for the grants.

NW News on 08/13/2016

Print Headline: Robotics center, bridge recieve grants

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