Stephen Knotts is in his glory.
Hired at Wayne Community College six years ago, he was named lead instructor of mechatronics engineering two years ago -- a virtually unheard of program that didn't even have a curriculum or textbook.
He "developed from scratch" the program that is producing its first graduating class in a few weeks and drawing attention from unanticipated directions.
"Four colleges are asking for my curriculum right now. I'm basically having to write my own textbooks," he said. "I have got publishers interested in me."
He has appreciated the unique opportunity to develop the first mechatronics program in the state community college system, he said.
"It may be the first in the country, but I can't confirm it," he said.
First and foremost, though, he wants others to understand what the college's newest program is, he says.
Mechatronics is a multidisciplinary field of science that includes mechanical engineering, electronics, systems engineering and control engineering. At WCC, students can earn a mechatronics engineering certificate or degree to prepare to be an automation technician who designs, builds, tests, installs, troubleshoots, repairs and modifies automated equipment systems.
"At its core industries, before, they would hire a mechanic, an electrician," Knotts said. "Instead of having four or five people they were really looking for all these skills, just to be in one package."
Knotts' own career began almost 40 years ago, starting in the nuclear industry as an electrical engineer, being a maintenance supervisor at the former Hevi Duty and installing hydraulics when Ruell got off the ground.
He enjoyed them all, he says, but is definitely positioned in the right place right now.
"Everything was worth it for me to be here," he said. "I can't think of anything I would rather be doing than this."
His efforts culminated in a special event this past week, "Mechatronics Day," showcasing the program and unveiling the second-year students' capstone project -- a fully automated manufacturing system built from the ground up.
Thursday also featured tours of the labs, an open house for potential students and a meeting with local industry leaders to get their feedback on the program.
The day also provided an opportunity to create more awareness about the growing career field, industrial systems instructors Bobby McArthur and Eddie Carter said.
"Basically this is to show what industries have today because everybody still thinks about the old dirty factories," Carter said. "You've got a lot of technology. They need people with a lot of skills but they're not finding them."
That could all change with the current crop of students being groomed for the field.
"I think we have eight students graduating in May," Knotts said.
Students Tim Stark, Zach Humphries, Greg Gurgone and Daniel Davis, huddled around their capstone project, still putting the finishing touches on it Thursday morning.
"Everything that's in this project is in just about every field of manufacturing," Stark said. "This is a very ambitious project to say the least."
It also required machining, which isn't included in mechatronics.
"Daniel was a big help on that end, along with others in the machining program," Stark said. "We had to design it while we were building."
Coupled with that was another glitch when the Mechatronics Day, originally scheduled for this week, was moved up a week because of a scheduling conflict.
Several gave up some of their spring break to continue working on the project, Knotts said.
The college program also had another advantage in the form of Festo equipment, a robot arm developed by a German manufacturing company and the only one in the United States, said Tara Humphries, public information officer at WCC.
"For them to be able to get this to teach on is a coup," she said.
Amber Dussault is one of the few women in the program, but hopes others will consider looking into it.
After a short-lived pursuit of nursing at another college and a stint in the Navy, she is excited to be graduating in mechatronics in May. She is actively applying for jobs and excited about her future in the field.
"It's starting to grow by leaps and bounds," she said. "I really want to be part of that and see where it goes."
Knotts' background in industry and insight into what the profession is looking for has helped him gear the program to what students need to succeed.
It's already paying off, he said, with "100 percent success rate in job placement."
"We have a waiting list of industrial people," he said. "We get phone calls weekly.
"I'm getting phone calls from as far away as Wilmington."