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NRC Engineering Students Aiming for Spot in National Skills Final

Students at engineering event

Engineering students from Northern Regional College were among the talented young robot programmers to participate in the industrial robotics ‘qualifier’ stage of WorldSkills UK at The Smart Factory Expo at the NEC Birmingham.

The qualifier stage was their next hurdle in a bid to secure a coveted spot in the WorldSkills UK national skills finals later this year and, potentially, an opportunity to represent the UK at the WorldSkills international finals in China in 2026.

Automation is a fast growing and innovative field of engineering with growing career opportunities for industrial robotic specialists. Industrial Robotics involves the use programmable robots to support manufacturing in an automated environment and is part of the curriculum for engineering courses at Northern Regional College. 

In an ongoing drive to encourage more young people to consider a career in automation and engineering, FANUC, a leading manufacturer of factory automation and robots, has partnered with WorldSkills UK to host the industrial robotics skills competition.

Prior to competing in the qualifiers, the competitors benefitted from an online training session from FANUC learn basic robotics programming and operating skills on industrial robot cells.    

For the qualifying stage, competitors working in teams of two, had to complete a simulated manufacturing process on a FANUC education cell.

The task was devised to test the teams’ knowledge on both basic and advanced programming by requesting that the teams move 10 cylinders from input tray to an output tray via middle puzzle tray that required the team to navigate a series of simple and complicated moves to complete. Meanwhile, on the robot simulation software, Roboguide, the team had to construct a twin of the robot setup in the digital space, as well as creating a comprehensive documentation package for the end user. All tasks had to be completed within a tight 3.5 hour timeframe. 

The highest scoring teams at the qualifying stage from across the UK will go through to the national final in November when they be will be required to programme and work with real FANUC robots.

Results from the qualifying Stage will be announced on July 11th, after which FANUC will be offering the top six teams from across the UK an opportunity for hands-on training at their world-class academy ahead of the national final.  

Students representing Northern Regional College in the qualifier stage included:

HLA (Higher Level Apprentice) apprentices Diarmuid Casey and Josh Shaw, who are employed by Lakeland Dairies and Shaw Automation respectively; HNC students Adam Murray and Shane Armstrong, are both employed by Ryobi Aluminium Casting UK Ltd; Callum Clarke have just completed the first year of a Foundation Degree in Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering; and Ashley Harrow, who is self-employed and doing a Foundation Degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering as a part-time student and HLA Harry McKeown, who is employed by Kyocera AVX.

Northern Regional College has been leading the way in educating the next generation of robotics engineers and has proven record in the national WorldSkills UK national finals. Since industrial robotics was introduced in 2021, students representing the College have won a clutch of gold, silver and bronze medals.

Hannah Currie and Peter O’Neill made it three in a row for the College last year when they won gold. In 2022, Jason Scott and Charlie Carson were gold medallists and in 2021, Louis Heath and Brennan Wilson filled the top spot.

Success in the national finals was the platform for even further success for some of the students. Silver medallists in 2021, Adam Kirkpatrick and Cameron Middleton were represented Team UK international finals in Luxembourg in 2022 and their success was replicated by the 2022 winners, Jason Scott and Charlie Carson who have been selected for Team UK for the forthcoming WorldSkills international finals in Lyon, France this September – the skills Olympics.

Karla Kosch, engineering lecturer at the College in Ballymena and WorldSkills UK Training Manager for Robotic Systems Integration has been instrumental in encouraging students and local employers to get involved in the WorldSkills series of competitions. She said the success enjoyed by the College on the national stage had inspired greater numbers to get involved in the competitions.

Outlining the qualifying process, Karla explained: 

“Fifty students took part in the inter-campus competition and from this, twelve progressed to the first national stage or ‘passive’ stage of the competition in April, and eight progressed to the qualifier stage.

“Over the past six weeks, these eight students who work in teams of two, have trained intensely so they could transfer their offline programming skills tested in the ‘passive stage’ to the practical FANUC robot cell programming in the qualifier stage.”

She continued:

“In the practical qualifying stage, our students competed against other students from all over the UK and only those with highest scores will be selected for the national final in Coventry in November.”

Karla added that she was most appreciative of how local employers – Lakeland Dairies, Shaw Automation, Ryobi Aluminium Casting UK Ltd, Kyocera Ava – had supported their apprentices and encouraged them to participate in the competition.

“I would also like to acknowledge how our former students and WorldSkills UK medallists have given both moral support and technical guidance to our current students who have no doubt benefited enormously from their expertise as they prepared for the competition.“

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