The Alien Dreadnought
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Robots inside the Tesla facility

The Alien Dreadnought

APSU College of STEM prepares students for tomorrow’s jobs


Inside the massive, sparkling white facility, a sign offers a grim warning: “Please don’t give them any more reasons to overthrow mankind.” The notice, hanging near the production floor, is referring to the giant robots—Wolverine, the Beast and Iceman—and the need to keep dirt particles and other debris from causing them to malfunction. The robots, named after comic book superheroes, are among the 10 largest in the world, and as they gracefully lift entire cars and then set them down, it’s easy to see how they’re transforming the automotive industry.

Wolverine, Beast and Iceman work alongside some 200 other robots at Tesla Inc.’s Fremont, California, facility, or what Wired Magazine once called, “the car factory of the future.”

Every year, thousands of young men and women from schools like Georgia Tech, Stanford and Carnegie Melon, hope to get an internship at the famed electric car company founded by billionaire Elon Musk, but they don’t simply want to meet some cool robots. According to CNBC, having a resume with one of the world’s hottest companies on it “automatically makes it more impressive.”

The internship application process is daunting, taking up to four months, and the jobs usually go to individuals from top tier institutions. But last year, Austin Peay State University physics student Jonathan Bunton decided to show the company that Austin Peay is just as good at preparing students for this type of high-tech work.

“A lot of times, some industries get hung up on finding interns from big names like M.I.T. or Cal Berkley, but I knew that I just needed a chance to show that students who are just as skilled, or more skilled than any other candidates, don’t have to come from those massive, well-known schools,” he said.

Bunton first arrived at Austin Peay in the summer of 2014, as a high school student attending the University’s Governors School for Computational Physics—a summer program for Tennessee’s top engineering, math and science high school students. This initial exposure to the APSU Department of Physics and Astronomy convinced Bunton to enroll at APSU, and over the last few years, he’s developed an impressive body of undergraduate research experience. This experience became an asset when he applied to Tesla.

“The interview process was stressful, but they asked questions about my research work, and I was able to go into detail about what I’ve done over the past year,” he said.

Bunton’s work impressed the hiring committee at Tesla, and he spent three months this summer at the Fremont facility, as an intern in the company’s quality engineering department. He is not an anomaly at the University, but rather an example of the type of student Austin Peay’s newly named College of STEM (formerly the College of Science and Mathematics) is now producing. In the last few years, the college has retooled its focus to better prepare students for the high-tech realities of 21st century workplace.

An Alien Dreadnought

Earlier this spring, hundreds of German-built robots arrived at the Tesla factory to help with production of the company’s model 3—a more affordable version of its popular electric car. The robots are part of CEO Elon Musk’s vision of an automated factory that looks like something from a science fiction novel. In a conference call with investors last year, he said that “(When) our factory looks like an alien dreadnought, then we know it’s probably right.”

An August 2016 article in the Washington Post quotes Musk as saying, “You really can’t have people in the production line itself. Otherwise you’ll automatically drop to people speed.”

But this isn’t simply Musk’s vision. A recent analysis by the Boston Consulting Group found that “By 2025, the share of tasks performed by robots will rise from a global average of around 10 percent to about 25 percent across all manufacturing industries.” A growing number of those advanced manufacturing plants are opening in Middle Tennessee, and these heavily automated facilities need highly skilled employees to design, operate and maintain these machines. Faculty members within APSU’s College of STEM realized what these incoming “alien dreadnought’s” needed—mechatronics.

The word sounds like something from a “Transformers” movie, but it’s a concentration within APSU’s engineering technology degree program that combines mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and other engineering disciplines.

“In today’s world, manufacturing automation is the key to success, and mechatronics is a degree that trains the individual to be an expert in the field of automation design and implementation,” Dr. John Byrd, chair of APSU Department of Engineering Technology, said. “The job market is way understaffed at this time, so it’s a high paying field. These students will be grabbed by employers faster than any other student coming out of the University.”           

Earlier this year, Austin Peay began modifying the campus’ Technology Building to meet the needs of the engineering technology program’s curriculum and the manufacturing needs of the state.

“Austin Peay is being responsive by rapidly repurposing this space,” Dr. Jaime Taylor, dean of the College of STEM, said. “This will be where mechatronics is taught. The building is changing, moving away from chemical engineering technology. This will become our advanced manufacturing lab.”

Building the X-Men

Musk wanted a facility staffed predominately by robots to produce his company’s vehicles, but where do the giant machines like Wolverine and Iceman come from? Often, they’re designed and built by men and women with an engineering physics degree, and with more manufacturers following Musk’s lead, Austin Peay’s College of STEM is now providing that degree.

On May 11, 2017, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) approved the program, allowing the University to begin offering a Bachelor of Science in Engineering (B.S.E.) degree, with a major in Engineering Physics this fall. The program is housed under APSU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, which has two licensed professional engineers on its faculty—Dr. Russ Longhurst and Dr. Chester Little.

“We have a very strong physics program at Austin Peay, and we’re leveraging that and growing it with this program, which is the next logical step,” Longhurst, associate professor of physics, said. “We’re leveraging our strength, and we hope to recruit the same types of students.”

The 120-credit hour degree program will familiarize students with multiple engineering disciplines, such as mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering, while focusing heavily on engineering design. The new degree fits perfectly with the college’s existing Department of Physics and Astronomy and its Department of Engineering Technology

“Engineering physics is the glue that brings the two together,” Dr. Alex King, chair of the APSU Department of Physics and Astronomy, said. “Someone with an engineering technology degree focuses on the daily running of equipment, making sure it doesn’t break down. An engineer does something more design related. The physics bit is, ‘Hey there’s this principle, we should be able to make a machine that does that.’ The engineering physics piece in the middle is we now get to build that machine.”

Austin Peay will be one of the few university’s in the country that offers an engineering physics degree, which will prepare students for numerous types of jobs in the engineering field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a national shortage of trained engineers has led to a demand of more than two million jobs in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics related occupations.

“People are always asking me, ‘What can you do with an engineering physics degree?’” Taylor said. “That is the wrong question. It should be, ‘What can’t you do?’”

Local manufacturers have approached the University for years about developing an engineering program, and the demand for this type of program is expected to grow. According to the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, “Advanced manufacturing job creation in Tennessee far outpaces national growth, at 27.1 percent job growth in Tennessee compared to 8.7 percent nationally from 2010 to 2015.” 

Bunton, the Tesla intern, is set to graduate next year, and if he stays in the region, he won’t have any difficulty finding a job. His internship at the famed car company was invaluable, but his experience in APSU’s College of STEM helped prepare him for a workplace that resembles an alien dreadnaught.

“I’ve come to appreciate that, after just my freshman year, I already knew all of the physics faculty at Austin Peay,” he said. “The biggest class I’ve been in has maybe been 25 students, and when you’re talking about classes like advanced quantum mechanics, that’s a really big deal to get that face-to-face attention from faculty. I haven’t limited myself at all (by staying in Middle Tennessee).”