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AmeriCOM Expands Technician-Training Network

Man working in machine-shop setting

Keene State 2024 grad Nathan Priebe now works full-time at Precitech AMETEK, a Keene, NH–based maker of equipment for precision diamond turning. [Image: courtesy of Keene State College]

AmeriCOM, a project supported by the US Department of Defense (DOD) aimed at workforce development in the precision-optics industry, plans to invest more than US$1 million to expand optics education and technician training at Keene State College (KSC), a public liberal-arts institution in Keene, NH, USA. The funds will be used to purchase equipment and provide advisory services to the college as it establishes a dedicated teaching lab in optics and precision manufacturing.

KSC is the first four-year educational institution to partner with AmeriCOM, which previously has focused on optics and photonics technician-training programs at four two-year community colleges.

Tackling technician shortage

AmeriCOM—officially the American Center for Optics Manfacturing, Inc.—was launched in September 2021, underwritten by a US$34 million DOD grant. The effort is designed to help address the long-standing and profound shortage of skilled optics and photonics technicians, who perform a range of crucial supporting tasks in R&D labs and industrial settings.

A February 2021 study from AIM Photonics estimated that, to support projected growth, US optics and photonics companies might need as many as 2,200 new skilled engineering technicians per year through the end of the decade. That’s far above the rate at which trained technicians are being graduated from the handful of existing training programs in the US (see “Wanted: Optics and Photonics Technicians,” OPN, February 2023).

Not surprisingly, given the roots of its funding, AmeriCOM’s support focuses on ensuring skilled workers and supply chains to produce the precision optics used in US defense and weapons systems. The organization has framed the aggressive goal of increasing “the capacity and quality of skilled optics technicians by a factor of 16—from less than 50 per year to more than 800 per year by 2025.” Talking with OPN early last year, AmeriCOM’s executive director for workforce development and higher education, Alexis Vogt, acknowledged that the goal was ambitious, but stressed that “the industry actually needs more than that number of people.”

A focus on diamond turning

AmeriCOM logo

The choice of KSC for this latest round of AmeriCOM support is an interesting one. The college’s home base, the city of Keene, is sometimes referred to as the “birthplace and capital” of diamond turning, a process that uses diamond-tipped machining tools for cutting and shaping. The process is central to the creation of precision optics including aspheric and freeform shapes.

Optics companies involved with single-point diamond turning technology have been located in Keene for decades. At present, according to a press release accompanying the recent AmeriCOM announcement, more than a dozen such businesses are located within 100 miles of KSC.

KSC already offers a curriculum in manufacturing engineering technologies and optics applications. The upgraded on-campus center receiving AmeriCOM support, to be dubbed the Kingsbury Center for Diamond Turning Excellence, will include a new teaching and training lab in precision optics. (The lab is named for the Kingsbury Fund, an endowment established in the 1950s by a local manufacturer, which provided US$100,000 in initial support for the facility.)

Equipment, curriculum and industry ties

Under the partnership with KSC, AmeriCOM will purchase more than US$1 million in equipment for the new Kingsbury Center. It will also work with the college on expanding its course offerings to embrace multiple tracks ranging from a one-week workshop to a one-year certificate program. The partnership hopes this will support flexible “upskilling” options that, according to a press release accompanying the announcement, are “particularly attractive to adult learners.”

The partnership hopes the AmeriCOM funding will support flexible “upskilling” options that are “particularly attractive to adult learners.”

In addition to the AmeriCOM support, the Kingsbury Center will benefit from a US$3 million congressionally directed spending (CDS) grant engineered by US Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). The CDS funding will be invested in “classroom improvements, program and curriculum development, and more specialized equipment,” as well as in facilitating “innovative growth projects with industry partners.”

“Keene State College’s approach to advanced-manufacturing education provides us with a tremendous opportunity to strengthen the optics workforce throughout New England and the nation,” Dave Shelton, AmeriCOM’s president and CEO, said in the press release. “We look forward to our continued work with the college to provide pathways for people interested in a career in precision optics manufacturing, particularly in the specialized field of single-point diamond turning.”

Publish Date: 31 May 2024

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