New High-Tech Optics Program at FRCC Slated for January 2019

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Photo by Adam Steininger

Front Range Community College at Boulder County is initiating a new yearlong high-tech optics program starting in January 2019, and if the funding is right, they will continue it in a new Center for Integrated Manufacturing (CIM) on South Sunset Street in the fall of 2019.

FRCC has several advanced manufacturing programs with a welding program at their Fort Collins campus, and for the last eight years a program that is now called Manufacturing in Energy Technology, at that same campus. Both are two-year degrees and an Associate in Applied Science (AAS) degree.

At FRCC in Boulder County, George Newman wears a lot of hats around campus as the Advanced Manufacturing Program Director, Machining Program Director, and the Optics Program Director as well.

“We started the machining program here at the Boulder County campus in 2013. We surveyed companies in 2012. We went out and interviewed 30 companies that do precision machining and found out from them that there was a critical, critical shortage of skilled machinists in Colorado, and northern Colorado, specifically,” Newman said. “They also talked about the types of skills they would want in a new employee that comes out of a program.”

Later in 2013, the college received a large grant from the U.S. Department of Labor which allowed them to lease their present space on Miller Drive in the Advanced Technology Center with 11,000 square feet. They purchased over a million dollars in equipment, developed a curriculum, hired instructors, and over the span of three years successfully trained over 400 machinists.

In 2016, they decided the precision machining program was fully sustainable and that once the grant ended, the program would continue, and since 2016 have trained another 200 machinists.

Photo by Adam Steininger

“The college was thinking, ‘Okay, so what’s next for advanced manufacturing?’ in September of 2016. We convened a meeting, it happened that it was held at Ball Aerospace in Boulder. We invited representatives from 30 manufacturing companies from north Denver all the way to the Wyoming border, which is what our service area entails,” Newman said.

“They felt that we needed to have a central location for our manufacturing programs. We did some research and it turned out that Longmont was the perfect place, because we’re right smack dab in the middle of our service area. We’re also right smack dab in the middle of the highest concentration of manufacturing in northern Colorado, right here in Boulder County.”

In 2016, they were also approached by the Colorado Photonics Industry Association with a similar need of a lack of trained optics technicians in this area, with many companies going out of state to find properly trained workers. Boulder County is one of four regional hubs for the optics and photonics industry in the United States and they had a real concern, so since 2016 they have been developing this one year high-tech optics program which is launching in January 2019.

“The optics program, the machining program, the two new programs that I described, industrial maintenance and automation and electronics, will be moving to a new location next fall, about a half mile from here, right across the street from the Career Development Center on Sunset Street. And in a 27,000 square foot space, we will have four advanced manufacturing programs, along with the optics program,” Newman said.

“We will have a classroom dedicated, and then there’s going to be a shop. Because the optics program is very hands-on. It’s to train not physicists, not engineers, not Ph.D.s, it’s to train the hands-on people who actually get the work done. They’re working in an industry that shapes glass, utilizing glass and light in various end-user products. So, we want them to know basically how to get this work done,” Newman said.

In the optics and photonics industry, companies can have different levels of involvement with the technology. Companies like Research Electro-Optics, Inc. or REO Inc. are starting with a flat piece of glass in their plant and turning them into prisms, lenses, mirrors, and other manipulations to make them usable in a commercial product.

Not all optics companies do that. Some will buy the glass already shaped, so those technicians are not always fabricating glass. They’re working with glass, but technicians must know about electronics, and so one of the courses for the optics certification is called Optics Electronic Instrumentation.

“We also have companies that are not using lenses so much, they’re using lasers. The Fundamentals of Light & Lasers course addresses that need. We have some companies that are doing research, and hiring technicians for research, so we have the Laboratory Operations course in the first semester,” Newman said.

“The second semester, we have Quality Assurance of Precision Optics, so technicians have to be able to measure the quality of the products that they make. Along with that, the Metrology of Optical Systems course addresses the need to be able to make measurements and follow specifications to make sure that the product that they are making meet the tolerances that are necessary.”

At CIM students will use equipment that will shape glass, bevel it, grind it, and polish it. The Advanced Topics in Optics & Photonics class includes work in thin film—putting a thin layer of chemical film on glass—and will work with equipment at the new location that will allow students to gain the skills needed to be able to coat glass and measure the properties of that glass that they manufactured with the film.

“Colorado has a very diverse manufacturing base. You have the aerospace industry, you have the medical equipment industry, you have the energy industry. Any company that’s making an instrument, and there are a lot of companies in Colorado that make a scientific instrument, or a commercial instrument, are using optics. It’s instruments, aerospace, energy, medical equipment, pretty much. It’s a wide variety,” Newman said.

Ryan McCoy, executive director of the Front Range Community College Foundation, is heading the fundraising effort for the prospective CIM building. FRCC is investing $6.2 million into this facility which will provide the renovation, as well as move the current equipment for machining over to the CIM building. Where they fall short is a great need for philanthropy, a need to raise two million dollars, specifically for equipment.

“I will say that the bulk of the equipment that we need actually comes out of the automation and engineering technology program, which is industrial maintenance. That’s about a 1.5-million-dollar price tag,” McCoy said. “So, with that, to date, we have raised close to $600,000 of support. We’ve received a lot of support, and one we can’t announce right now, just because they’re sending out a press release soon. But a company who is, will be naming the electronics lab. And then we’ve received a lot of support from individuals in the optics community.”

One of the few that have helped champion this initiative is Paul Kelly, the former CEO and president of REO which is a manufacturer of high precision optics based out of Boulder.

The past few weeks have opened the door for more contributions since the building itself has become an enterprise zone. The foundation’s goal is to have the two million dollars raised before August 2019 and are looking to industries to come to the table with money and invest in FRCC, so they have a future pipeline of quality technicians.

“We have written a proposal, and we are approved to be considered an enterprise zone contribution project, which gives us the opportunity, and the individual organizations as well as individuals, to make contributions and then get a larger, basically tax incentive for people who contribute to organizations such as Front Range Community College who are in enterprise zones,” McCoy said.

Typically, Career and Technical Education (CTE) certificates and degrees such as the upcoming yearlong high-tech optics program are designated as terminal degrees, so they do not normally provide a pathway to a four-year degree. The courses in a CTE certificate and degree may be used as satisfying necessary electives in the four-year degree, but generally are not prerequisite courses. For that, FRCC has developed a two-year engineering pathway for those wishing to start their engineering degree at the community college level before transferring.

FRCC plans on keeping up with newer technologies and has an advisory committee—a committee of industry representation—that meets a minimum of twice a year that are going to be intimately involved with the courses themselves and the structure of the program. In fact, it was an industry organization that first approached FRCC and helped structure the courses for the optics program.

The yearlong high-tech optics program is designed for students who are attending full-time to finish in a year—two semesters. Although, the way the program is set up, students can go part-time while they’re working. As of right now, the upcoming classes in January are scheduled for late afternoon and into the evening. They intended it this way in hopes of attracting plenty of incumbent workers already in the optics field.

“What these companies have been doing to make up for the lack of skills is they’ve been training them on their own. They’ll bring somebody in who has zero experience in this kind of a job and they’ll do on-the-job training. Well, the reason why the industry came to us is because they had the intent of sending some of their employees to these classes, so they could get the background they may not have learned on the job,” Newman said.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll also see a lot of career changers who are looking for a better career, and ultimately, high school students who will leave the Career Development Center or local high schools and come here looking for a one-year certificate, which could lead to a $20 an hour position in the industry.”

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Adam received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Writing from the University of Colorado Denver. He’s written for such publications as the Westword, his own weight loss blog, Big Pig’s Feet, and the former CU Denver student-ran weekly, The Advocate. Adam moved to Longmont in 1994 as a bumbling daydreaming teenager and has now made it to adulthood in the upright position. He rendezvoused abroad in Denver for several years only to return to good ol’ Longtown to make waves as a volunteer writer for the Longmont Observer. He’s also a filthy penny-rich fiction writer, general information hound, barely related to Ed McMahon, and loves to name drop.

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