Rock Valley College’s Advanced Technology Center: Manufacturing a Future for the Region

After a decade of planning, class is finally in session at the Advanced Technology Center, the latest learning lab for Rock Valley College. Inside this high-tech training center, a new generation of workers is gaining an interactive education that promises to equip them with the skills they need to start or advance their careers at our region’s advanced manufacturers. It’s a game-changer on many levels.

While a number of locations were considered, Rock Valley College eventually chose 1400 Big Thunder Ave., in Belvidere, as the headquarters for the Advanced Technology Center. The former Shopko site was previously owned by Belvidere School District 100.

It’s early in the morning and classes aren’t yet in session at Rock Valley College’s (RVC) newest building. Despite the relative quietness that pervades the cavernous Advanced Technology Center (ATC) in Belvidere, one can almost hear the din of welding and fabrication labs, the whir of robotic manipulators and the confabulation of students and professors.

Every space within this building is designed to get students into the mindset of working on the shop floor at one of our region’s manufacturers.

The state-of-the-art, open-concept ATC, with its combination of classrooms and computer labs, machining areas, welding studios and flex labs, is dedicated to providing a hands-on learning experience for those entering the manufacturing field. The goal is not only to equip entry-level workers who need basic technical training but to also equip those already in the field for the rapidly growing number of high-skill jobs within Rockford’s manufacturing sector.

“The Advanced Technology Center will be used as a hub for customized training in our region, which is our current focus,” says Dr. Hansen Stewart, vice president of industry partnerships and community engagement at RVC. “Our offerings will continue to grow and evolve as the needs in our region grow and evolve.”

After opening this past January, with an official ribbon cutting in March, the 77,000-square-foot center is the new home for the majority of RVC’s manufacturing, technology and industrial-based programs, which include mechatronics, computer numerical control (CNC) machining, welding and forklift training. English as a second language (ESL) courses are also offered to students studying in these fields.

The center offers credit programs for those who need certifications that get them in the door of a local employer. “Stackable credentials” that build upon each other are also available for those in the workforce who want to climb the ladder.

“There is a tremendous need, in our region, to train individuals to take on skilled careers in our workforce, specifically manufacturing and trade industries,” says Dr. Howard Spearman, RVC President. “We are proud to be a part of the workforce solution in our community.”

With most of the center’s classes running at, or near, full capacity this fall, the center is already making a significant impact – one that will, in the near future, be felt in the surrounding region.

Rock Valley College’s community fun day, on Aug. 20, invited the public to learn more about the new Advanced Technology Center and its job skills programming.

A Decade in the Making

An accredited two-year community college that has been attracting students from around the region since 1964, Rock Valley College currently offers more than 100 courses for certificates, associate degrees, transfer degrees and career programs. The Advanced Technology Center serves as the latest addition for students who wish to advance their education, further their career goals or start a new chapter in their working lives. Getting to this point has taken nearly a decade.

The process began when RVC officials began surveying the specific demands of the Rockford area’s industrial sector. They wanted to find ways for the community college to build programming around those needs. In part, they wanted to ensure the region could build its own workforce and better equip local residents to take up the high-tech, high-skilled jobs that predominate the local manufacturing scene – which accounts for nearly 20% of all local jobs, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. A strong pipeline of skilled workers encourages employers to relocate to our region, stay here and grow.

“Community and technical colleges around the country exist, in part, to address the needs of the workforce pipeline,” says Stewart. “We visited other centers and collaborated with colleagues, both within and outside Illinois before building the Advanced Technology Center.”

The next step was to find a serviceable location. Several were considered, including the former Barber-Colman building in downtown Rockford and the Rockford Register Star tower, but for varying reasons those options never materialized. By the time Spearman was named president in the fall of 2020, a location had yet to be officially nailed down, though things were in the works.

“When I became president, I picked up the charge to get the project over the finish line,” says Spearman.

Months before his arrival, RVC leaders had solicited bids from across the community and narrowed the selection to a small handful of viable locations. In the end, they chose the former Shopko site at 1400 Big Thunder Ave., in Belvidere, which was owned at the time by Belvidere School District 100. That decision was finalized, and the property purchased just three weeks into Spearman’s tenure.

Once the wheels were in motion, they began to turn quickly. By November, Ollmann Ernest Martin Architects, a Belvidere architectural firm, was brought aboard to oversee the building’s transformation. Stenstrom, a Rockford contracting firm, was brought on board in January. Two years later, the facility was up, running, and under its $15 million budget.

But getting the Advanced Technology Center to that proverbial finish line still involved its fair share of hurdles. Like many endeavors its size, these kinds of races rarely happen on a smooth, straight track. Add an ongoing pandemic and supply chain issues to the mix and the past few years have offered anything but ideal circumstances.

“As with any major project, there were challenges along the way,” says Spearman. “Last fall we encountered some issues with the delivery of some of the equipment needed for the CNC program.”

This hiccup led to a delay in launching the CNC cohort at the same time as the rest of the programs, which launched in January. The equipment eventually found its way to the center in time for the CNC program to launch in early March. Now, the center is up and running, with all of the expected programming in place.

The flex lab at the heart of the Advanced Technology Center is designed so it can accommodate whatever projects and new technologies a class is working on.

An Ever-Changing Need

There’s a reason Rockford has the nickname “Screw City.” Manufacturing has been a vital part of the city’s lifeblood since the very beginning. From its roots in furniture manufacturing and farm implement fabrication to its role in knitting and fasteners to its current status as a leader in automotive parts, aerospace, hydraulics and advanced manufacturing, Rockford is a city that makes things.

Today’s manufacturing jobs aren’t what they were a generation ago. The introduction of high-tech equipment and precision manufacturing often requires some level of advanced education. Equipping the region’s workforce with those skills is paramount in the eyes of RVC officials and local leaders.

This is where RVC’s Advanced Technology Center comes in. In order to grow with the needs of local industry, the center needs to be willing to grow and change with the manufacturing sector.

“Throughout the center’s planning, we have involved community, business and industry partners,” says Stewart. “We will continue that collaboration to grow and evolve.”

RVC is no stranger to the notion of adapting for the times. It would be difficult for a community college to exist for almost six decades if it didn’t already embrace the idea. Still, when training future workers in a sector that embraces and sometimes leads innovative change, it’s even more important to stay nimble.

“Over the past few years, many of our career and technical education programs have seen major redesigns in the curriculum,” says Stewart. “This important work was led by our talented faculty in tandem with our business and industry partners and are designed to meet the needs of our students, as well as the needs of the workforce pipeline.”

The mechatronics program, which combines practices in mechanics, engineering and computing, has already benefited from a collaborative redesign.

“Instead of only offering mechatronics certificates, we were recently approved to add an associate of applied science degree in mechatronics,” says Stewart.

This model requires constant communication between RVC and its industry partners. They’re typically invited to the table when the school develops new curricula.

“All of our career and technical education areas have advisory committees made up of professionals from business and industry in our region,” explains Stewart. “Together, we can adjust programs, offerings and customized training to address the needs of the workforce.”

This dedication to flexibility and adaptability has also been built directly into the Advanced Technology Center itself. Every one of the center’s five classrooms is designed to easily adapt to the instructor’s lesson plans. Desks, tables and workstations can easily be transformed to accommodate breakout sessions or group work. Mobile whiteboards can be swung into place to sketch out a design or establish a partition. The entire series of lab modules in the Woodward Mechatronics Flexlab – located at the cavernous heart of the ATC – can be transformed from a group of separate pods to a shared workspace. The classrooms look the same for this reason, as well, with practically every fixture on wheels. That way, instructors can configure the rooms however they need, for lectures or hands-on work.

This flexibility is also useful when it comes to comingling students who are earning a certificate for the workforce with those who are there for customized job training. The ability to organize workspaces to accommodate a class in one area of the lab, while other students job train in the other, makes it much easier for both groups to thrive.

Taking things a step further, RVC has partnered with District 100 to provide welding classes to high schoolers; more than 60 students are already enrolled, and they’re getting an early start in learning this high-demand trade.

Indeed, the flexibility that’s built into this space creates learning opportunities for students of all ages, motives and levels of experience.

“All career and technical education programs have a blend of classroom and lab learning,” says Stewart. “It is critical that students understand the theoretical framework, as well as the information regarding lab and equipment safety. Additionally, it better sets the student up for customized training opportunities, which will be more hands-on than lecture.”

Lounges give students a place to eat, study or take a quick break during course work.

A Break for Students

In addition to creating a unique learning environment through the Advanced Technology Center, RVC is also working to break down financial barriers that new, returning and continuing students face while training for their careers. The RVC Strong Campaign for Student Success and Scholarships was launched in 2021 by the Rock Valley College Foundation. The student-focused campaign raised more than $1 million in student scholarships, thanks to the generosity of more than 80 donors. Now, the foundation is seeking to provide more relief by partnering with more industry partners.

For students, this means an opportunity for significant financial relief, including having tuition covered and access to an emergency fund for those who are facing financial crises. To date, 175 students have benefited from this waiver. That’s 175 more workers the region’s manufacturing sector may not have had otherwise.

Rock Valley College leaders say they’re working diligently with industry partners to keep training programs relevant to the current needs of our region’s manufacturers.

An Eye on the Future

Rock Valley College serves students from several counties in northern Illinois, a region with a rich legacy of industrial excellence. Now, thanks to educational programs like the ones found at the RVC Advanced Technology Center, Rockford’s industrial past is transitioning to a high-tech future with a technology-driven manufacturing sector that can thrive and adapt.

There’s also space inside the building for future expansion, whether it’s extra classroom and office space, new labs or truck driver training that makes use of the building’s two loading docks. The possibilities are endless here, and that’s entirely by design.

Near the entrance to the ATC is a large display cabinet, located directly in the sightline of visitors entering the building. The cabinet currently stands empty but, in the near future, it will be filled with projects created by the center’s CNC machining and welding students. It’s the perfect metaphor for the center itself. Brand new, but bursting with a potential that will inspire the future, impact its surrounding community, and change and evolve as time marches on.

What’s Inside the ATC?
Here are the programs that are currently offered at the RVC Advanced Technology Center.

CNC Machining
This form of digital manufacturing technology uses software to create highly accurate parts for specialized machinery using lathes, mills, grinders and routers, all controlled and operated by computer controls.
Because of its potential to create one-off parts, custom jobs and small to medium-volume production, CNC Machining is a rapidly growing field with a high demand among Rockford-area producers.
The CNC Machining program at the RVC Advanced Training Center is designed to give students the skill sets needed for an entry-level position in a manufacturing environment, with a focus on shop math, blueprint interpretation, metrology and operation skills.

Another rapidly emerging field, mechatronics is the combination of several engineering disciplines, including mechanical, electrical and computer engineering. This intersection of systems with computer technologies is the foundation of smart technologies like robotics, automated guidance systems and computer-integrated manufacturing.
At the RVC Advanced Technology Center, students learn the fundamentals of mechatronics. There are two certification programs available, starting with electromechanical systems and working with robotic manipulators, then moving to industrial robots, sensor and conveyor systems, and system-level troubleshooting.
Graduates of the mechatronics program will be equipped for employment in a wide range of areas, including robotics and industrial maintenance.

The RVC welding program is one of the most comprehensive in the region and was originally housed in RVC’s Stenstrom Center for Career Education. At the Advanced Technology Center, television monitors let students get an up-close look at the instructor’s sample work. They are given their own bays, without having to worry about cramped quarters or sharing the space and schedule with other RVC programs.
Graduates of the RVC welding program are exposed to common, manual and semi-automatic welding processes, with a focus on industrial safety, blueprint reading and basic metal fabrication. Armed with this experience, they will be able to find work in construction, manufacturing and fabrication settings.
RVC also offers certification for advanced welding and industrial welding.

Forklift & Aerial Lift
The Advanced Technology Center is also the new home of RVC’s Warehouse 101 program, which prepares students for a career in distribution and warehousing. Students will learn the basics of forklift and aerial scissor safety, as well as material handling and pedestrian safety.

English as a Second Language (ESL)
ESL classes are offered at the Advanced Technology Center for students who wish to enter the manufacturing industry but who need to improve their speaking, reading, writing and comprehension skills in the English language.