The problem with the phrase “robotics and automated systems” is that “of course, people go straight to R2D2,” says Mike Borkowski. An engineering technician with Viking Engineering, Borkowski said that while the average person might picture a robotic arm or a humanoid on wheels, “robots” in the real world can look very different. But, Borkowski said, “They all do the same thing. A robot determines how to do something based on its environment.”

In his current job, Borkowski travels throughout the U.S., installing and servicing Viking equipment, which uses robotics to put together pallets. “There is no measuring, there is no placing a nail by hand,” he said. “The machine knows how big the boards are, and the machine knows where to place the nails.”

Borkowski grew up working with his father, who has always worked with industrial equipment. “I would go to the shop and fix stuff. I was always a math-type person. It’s very step-based, very logical,” he said.

After high school, Borkowski chose the Automated Systems and Robotics (ASRO) program at Dunwoody College. “Basically what I went through is ‘What do I want to learn, what don’t I want to learn, what can I afford, what programs are out there?’” What he did want to learn was Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs), and, he said, “There isn’t a four-year degree that will teach you those things. It’s more of a trade. The hands-on piece was important.”

Borkowski spent two years at a company in Rochester, Minn. Laid off when the recession hit, he moved back to the Twin Cities and spent two years doing contract work, mostly building control panels. Then he was approached by a recruiter. “I told him what I wanted to do — both design and hands on,” Borkowski said. That led to his job at Viking, where he’s now been for more than two years.

“You never stop learning,” he said. “That’s something I enjoy with Viking now — there are so many things that I can learn. There’s always the opportunity to become a better employee, a better worker, a better tech.”

Do you like traveling for work?

I like variety — at this stage of my career that’s kind of a nice thing. I’ve worked in places where you need spikes on your boots because there’s ice on the floor, and I’ve worked in Texas where it was 103 degrees in the building.

Where do you see your career going from here?

I could go so many different ways. Eventually I’d like to go back to school and get my engineering degree. I’d like to do both mechanical and electrical. The two sides of the machine are so dependent on one another. It’s a good idea to understand both.

Will there come a time when you have to give up the hands-on side of things?

I guess I haven’t hit that bridge yet. You can’t manage, design, go out in the shop and build stuff and say that you’re productive in all three. Eventually I’d like to get into just design and then into management.

You’re now in a position to interview and hire new robotics grads. What do you look for?

We look for some exposure in hydraulics, schematics, controls. The ASRO program makes you familiar with all those things. When it comes to field tech service, you represent your company at the customer. We look for people who smile. The big thing is the attitude — are you willing to do the job? □