LCCC's new bachelor of applied science degree in smart manufacturing is driving local industry automation

If anyone says manufacturing is a trade of the past, they’ll be met with an emphatic “absolutely not” from David Zunis. He’s Director of Service & Applications Engineering at Absolute Machine Tools, which has been importing and selling CNC machinery for 35 years. Today the Lorain company is forecasting the future of the industry and ramping up its turnkey automation and robotics departments. And they’re doing so, in part, to fill holes in the workforce. 

“We’re pressing more and more toward automation because the people just aren’t there. We’re not replacing jobs, we’re filling vacancies,” Zunis said. “And when you’re into the automation and robotics world, you still need people to fix and program the robots.”  

To keep pace with advances in automation, and ensure employees have the skillsets needed, Zunis said Absolute Machine Tools has turned to its long-standing training partner, Lorain County Community College.  

“We rely on LCCC to bring our workforce up to speed with the skillsets that we need in today’s manufacturing world,” Zunis said. “You need good math skills, good cognitive abilities. You have to understand data.” 

Actually, Zunis and Absolute Machine Tools have done more than rely on LCCC to prepare their employees for the growth of automation; the company had a hand in designing the college’s latest automated equipment focused program. Zunis represented Absolute Machine Tools among a host of local employers that helped design the curriculum of LCCC’s Bachelor of Applied Science in Smart Industrial Automated Systems Engineering Technology 

LCCC launched the program in fall 2022 in response to the rapid development of disruptive technologies that are shaping advanced manufacturing in Northeast Ohio. It’s the second bachelor of applied science degree launched by LCCC, and it stacks seamlessly with LCCC’s associate of applied science in automation engineering technology degree. 

“It actually blows my mind that we have a community college offering a four-year degree program within its ranks,” Zunis said. 

One of the program’s earliest students will be Emily Graven of Lorain. The 19 year old is an automation engineer at Absolute Machine Tools. She started with the company as an intern while attending the Lorain County JVS and now Zunis sees her as someone who can help drive the company’s automation-focused future.  

“Emily is learning stuff that we are literally in the middle of working on right now with our customers,” Zunis said. “She’s learning exactly what we need her to learn, so it’s immediate payback.” 

Graven grew up with an appreciation for the trades and knew from the time she was 10 years old that she wanted a hands-on career.  

“A lot of my family is in the automotive trade,” Graven said. “I would watch my dad and my brother work on a motor and then put it in a car, and now that car’s running. I thought that was pretty cool.” 

After touring the precision machine technology lab at the JVS, Graven said it opened her eyes to the possibilities in machining. She also took part in LCCC’s Career Technical Education Partnership Program with Lorain County JVS and received college credit for two classes. By her junior year, Graven landed her internship with Absolute Machine Tools. 

“At that point, I didn’t know that I wanted to do robotics,” Graven recalled. “I didn’t know what automation was.”  

But as Graven learned more about Absolute Machine Tools, she began to see how automation would expand within the company, along with the entire manufacturing industry. Zunis said the department’s growth over the past four years was a result of its strategic planning.  

“We looked at where we would need to be in terms of selling CNC machine tools and our services,” Zunis said. “We asked what’s going to make us more profitable in the future, what’s going to put us ahead of our competition. And automation was a big part of that.” 

Emily Graven and David Zunis

Zunis said the company’s automation department might be its smallest, but it’s the most rapidly growing. And it offers Graven another opportunity to flourish, and perhaps become a leader, within a company that’s taught her everything she knows about manufacturing. 

“I have learned a lot at work, but the college has opportunities to teach me new things that I can bring back to the job,” Graven said. 

Her favorite class so far has been the programmable logic controller course where she learned to write ladder logic. She’s also been fully trained in robotics and has become Mitsubishi Electric Robot Maintenance Technician certified. Now she’s gaining experience with FANUC arc welding robots. 

“After this class, I will have mastered every single robot that we sell at Absolute,” Graven said. 

While Graven has received tuition reimbursement through Absolute Machine Tools, the program’s community college tuition rates for a four-year degree make it among the most affordable in the state. And, given LCCC’s ongoing ties to industry, Zunis is confident that as employers’ needs evolve, so will the curriculum. 

“LCCC is always reaching out to the community to make sure they’re doing what it needs,” Zunis said. “This is the community’s college.” 

“LCCC is always reaching out to the community to make sure they’re doing what it needs.”
David Zunis, Director of Service & Applications Engineering at Absolute Machine Tools