MCALLEN, RGV – With the size of its Festo Lab doubling, South Texas College can look forward to companies from across North America sending their workers to learn how to operate industrial automation equipment.

This is the view of Carlos Margo, associate dean of industry training and economic development at STC. Margo gave the Rio Grande Guardian an exclusive interview about the Festo Lab while VIPs were touring a new $9.3 million building at the college’s new technology campus in south McAllen.

“This new building allows us to essentially double the size of our Festo Lab, which we had in our prior building. We went from about 4,000 square feet to about 8,000 square feet of industrial automation and robotics equipment,” Margo explained.

“We were the first college in the nation to become Festo certified for training. We will continue to offer credentials to students who go through these programs. We have over 15 to 20 different modules that students can get certified in, from hydraulics to electronic sensors, motors, robotics, etc. It is really comprehensive and this lab has given us a unique opportunity that many colleges and universities across the nation do not have.”

Festo is a German company and industry leader that manufactures industrial automation equipment. Margo has visited the company’s headquarters in Esslingen, Germany. STC became a Festo certified training center in April 2015. It took a couple of million dollars and three years to develop the program. To secure a Festo certification, students must complete 615 hours of training in 12 different modules, such as hydraulics, pneumatics, programmable logic controllers, robotics, etc.

With the new laboratory, Margo expects to be able to double the size of its summer camps. However, the number of new students and workers the lab attracts may depend on how well the facility is marketed, Margo acknowledged.

“We do not have a big marketing budget, we do not promote a lot of this. But, we have a tremendous opportunity, if we were to market and promote this and get this to the right people, north of San Antonio, north of Texas. This could be a destination training center where companies from across North America could send their workers to receive training,” Margo said.

There is no reason STC should not have such lofty ambitions, Margo said.

“Because it is something in demand and it is state of the art, it is the latest and greatest in industrial automation so there is no reason that companies from all across North America cannot come here to McAllen to receive training. The only thing is, like you said, perhaps not enough people know about it. That is our challenge. We have our service area here as a community college in Hidalgo and Starr counties. This definitely has the potential to serve the entire region, at a minimum, perhaps even more.”

Festo has been a manufacturer of industrial automation parts for companies for many years. Today it has an educational line, Festo Didactic, Inc., which allowed the company to establish lines of equipment that benefit colleges and universities.

“That is when we at South Texas College took advantage of, and invested in, a lot of different types of equipment that allowed us to become certified. It was not an easy task but we continue to be certified,” Margo said.

One area STC could see additional demand created is in Reynosa, Margo believes.

“Just across the river we have over 100 maquila plants and over 120,000 manufacturing employees. If we can get ten percent of them to come and take some training here, that would help us get to capacity. But, it is also a matter of being able to serve our regional business partners. If they need training, there is no reason why they should have to spend money to send their employees to Detroit or other areas where they typically send them, when South Texas College can offer the competencies that are just as good as those out of state.”

Now the Festo Lab has doubled in size, the challenge will be to stay competitive with the latest technology and the most qualified instructors, Margo acknowledged.

“In order to be continuously competitive, we have to keep augmenting our labs and our instructors, to help them get their certifications, to get them additional training as needed. It is a continuous investment. We have reached a certain pinnacle but it is something we have to keep working at and fighting for because resources are limited. It can be a fight but we are going to keep doing it because our region deserves that. We want STC to continue to be the premier leader in industrial automation for this entire region.”

The latest acquisition, Margo said, is a Fanuc robotic arm. Fanuc is one of the biggest manufacturers of robotics in the country.

“We have several Fanuc robots but this latest one is very much at industry grade. It is something that has been used in industry before and we are honored to have it. We can use the robotic arm to blend different materials for painting, for welding, and other applications. It is work robots can do,” Margo said.

“So, we are training technicians to be able to troubleshoot the robot. If it goes down we need somebody to get it up and running quick, or industry does. So, we are teaching individuals how to program this robot, how to troubleshoot it. A lot of it has to do with programming and coding and being able to tell the robot exactly what to do, how to paint, how to weld, and all that requires human skills that are no longer just manual labor requirements. It is something that requires a higher level of learning.”