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HARLINGEN, RGV – When the president of Alps Electric recommended the formation of a machine tooling academy in the Rio Grande Valley its leaders listened.

Representatives of McAllen Economic Development Corporation, South Texas College and UT Pan American visited Tokyo to see what the giant electronic components manufacturer was looking for. They said Toshihiro Kuriyama, the president, wanted them to create an academy so that he could manufacture tools for his Reynosa plant locally, rather than have them shipped over from Japan.

Carlos Margo
Carlos Margo

“Our visit to Japan was very productive,” said Carlos Margo, associate dean for STC’s office of industry training and economic development. “My interest was mainly in seeing the plant where their molds and tools are made. I wanted to see first-hand what their tooling requirements are. But it was also a great bonding experience. It was great from an economic development standpoint.”

In addition to Margo, Miguel Gonzalez, dean of college engineering and computer science at UTPA, and Keith Patridge, president of MEDC, were on the trip to Japan.

Margo is also executive director of the North American Advanced Manufacturing Research and Education Initiative (NAAMREI). He spoke to the Rio Grande Guardian about the Valley’s new tooling academy at a NAAMREI regional manufacturing summit held at TSTC Harlingen last Thursday.

Margo said the tooling academy will be located at a former manufacturing plant on Military Highway, just west of the South Texas College technology campus in McAllen. He said that thanks to a grant obtained by UTPA, the consortium putting the academy together also has funding for equipment such as lathes and a mill.

“Everything is on track for us to open the tooling academy in April. We have the space and the equipment. Some existing students and trainers will get it set up and we should be ready for our first cohort in April, a handful of students,” Margo said.

Margo pointed out that there are probably no more than one or two experienced tooling engineers in the Valley. “When you start with only one or two, four or five is a lot. We need to get a cohort of six to eight to start with. The idea is to get them trained in machining while they are getting their engineering degree at UTPA,” Margo said.

Asked how long the coursework would take, Margo said: “If they have their engineering degree, we are looking at a minimum of two years. If they want to combine it will be at least four or five years.”

Margo said a lot of the praise for setting up the tooling academy must go to ALPS President Kuriyama, both for prompting its creation and for agreeing to be a corporate partner on the project.

“This all goes back to the president and CEO of Alps in Tokyo who has been pushing for this for at least three or four years now. His vision is to have Alps build their own tools locally instead of having to import them from Japan or elsewhere around the world. There would be tremendous cost savings. They definitely see the potential to have toolmakers here in the Valley. We see the potential with our labor pool to be toolmakers. It is just a matter of having the right training programs, the right level of skills; the right trainers,” Margo said.

“And, of course, we need solid curriculum developers. We have to work backwards doing job task analysis with Alps. We need to know exactly what they want. In order to do that we need to analyze their toolmakers’ actual job tasks and then work backwards to build a curriculum based on their job tasks. That is where Alps comes in. They were great about it. They said, you can come to Japan anytime and spend as much time as you need studying our tool making plant. They have opened their doors to us.”

Margo pointed out that the U.S. used to produce a lot of tool manufacturers, particularly in the Mid-West. However, once the big manufacturing corporations started to move their plants to Asia, demand dried up. “We have started to see the jobs come back. Now, manufacturers are telling us, if you build the talent we will come back because working overseas does not make sense anymore.”

Asked what NAAMREI’s involvement in the project is, Margo said: “We are a major partner in developing the curriculum. The students will need two years of instruction and five years of work experience. We hope to be training about ten toolmakers, with this figure rising to 20. If we were to graduate 20 I can almost guarantee Alps will move their tool making program down here. They want to build their tools here. But first we have to supply the pool of talented tool makers.”

Editor’s Note: The photos for the slideshow posted at the top of this story were taken at NAAMREI’s regional manufacturing summit held at TSTC Harlingen on January 29, 2015.