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MFG Day at ECPI gives hands-on look at manufacturing careers

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By Bill Poovey
bpoovey@gsabusiness.com
Published Nov. 9, 2015

Showing off a robot manufactured by his employer, Juan Londono handed the controller to a Greenville County student visiting ECPI University’s MFG Day Expo. The visiting students — enrolled in engineering, mechatronics and other project-based programs at their high schools — each took a turn. As Londono instructed, he told the group that he loves working with robots and computer automated systems at Duncan-based Staubli Corp. He also said there is a payoff for students who develop mechatronics and engineering skills.

“They start about $40,000, and it depends on what they show and the skills,” Londono said during a break between talking to groups among the more than 160 students and 15 instructors. “The top pay is about $60,000 and $65,000. Engineers start about $45,000 to $50,000. Top is about $80,000.”

Philip Barone, an ECPI University instructor who oversees the mechatronics program, welcomes visiting high school students to the university’s MFG Day Expo. (Photo by Bill Poovey)
Philip Barone, an ECPI University instructor who oversees the mechatronics program, welcomes visiting high school students to the university’s MFG Day Expo. (Photo by Bill Poovey)
Londono, also a junior in the university’s mechatronics program, said his main job at Staubli is designing “electrical drawings for robotic tool changers. Also, I assemble the robot tool changers, install the tool changers, show how to operate and maintain. Also, I design robots for trade shows.”

Londono said the company’s robots are working at Bosch, BMW, ZF Transmissions and others. Staubli also manufactures quick-release couplings and textile machinery.

“This is the future for manufacturing,” Londono said. “We are taking humans and replacing with robots. People need to be in the technology. Everywhere you go now, you see more robots.”

ECPI President Karen Burgess said 161 Greenville County students attended the daylong event with representatives of a lineup of companies that included GE Aviation, GE Power & Water, Baldor, Draxlmaier, Staubli, Michelin, Quick-Crate and Waldrop Inc.

“This is the first time we have done this,” Burgess said. “We have a manufacturing program called mechatronics, which is a four-year bachelor’s degree program” and an electrical engineering technology program. Burgess said students “can learn to operate in an automated production environment, such as BMW, Michelin, etc.” She said the event also helps convey the message that manufacturing is “no longer a dirty, physically intensive job.”

That perception of manufacturing is a hurdle for employers. The Manufacturing Institute, the nonprofit affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers, says despite the advanced skills and pay, 35% of parents say they would encourage their children to pursue careers in manufacturing. Burgess said that is unfortunate because English degrees are not the best goals for everyone.

“There are more parents bringing their children and looking at our hands-on program versus an English degree from wherever it might be,” she said. “When you leave a school like ours, where you’ve gotten hands on experience, you are going get a job in the field.”

An institute report shows that over the next decade, about 3.5 million manufacturing jobs likely need to be filled, and about 2 million of them will be unfilled.

“We don’t have enough graduates to give to the employers that need students from this field,” Burgess said.

Fraser League, president of Quick-Crate North America in Greenville, showed students how his company that started production in 1917 has developed a high-tech process to manufacture collapsible shipping crates that are far different from sheets of plywood nailed together. The crates have removable panels that allow products to be quickly accessed from the top or sides.

“We have carved out a niche,” selling primarily to aerospace, defense and industrial groups, League said. Quick-Crate has more than 900 customers in 14 countries, and in some cases the crates are used to make deliveries by parachute.

“We are going to need more employees with a certain skill set to be able to run program to set up that (computer numerical control) equipment,” he said. “Everything we do is very high tech.” He said employees who are programming and doing computer simulations “are up around the $20-an-hour mark.”

League said users of the custom-made crates include the Anderson-based S.C. National Guard 263rd Army Air and Missile Defense Command, which sets up a mobile air defense system to protect the president.

“So let’s say President Obama is coming to Atlanta to do some kind of speech. Most people don’t know it, but air and missile defense is on the ground,” League said. “So they are going to take a mobile command. Set it up. They have got a team of engineers who are watching the air space. They’ve got surface-to-air missiles ready to take out any threat that comes around. People don’t think of that. But the Super Bowl or anything big where you are going to have large crowds, air and missile defense is there.”

League said the mobile launch tent “might be 30 miles away from wherever President Obama is going to be, but they are setting up air and missile defense.” He said computers, tracking equipment, tracking equipment, antenna are rolled into a tent.

“They are actually transporting all their equipment in our crates to the site. Then they sit down and use them. Once the event is over, they pack everything up, put it in the crates and ship it back to their warehouse and store them until the next event.”

Among the visiting students, Wade Hampton High School junior Austin Rutter said he is taking a principles of engineering class and has taken introduction to engineering and design. He said the programs include working with computer aided design modeling and 3-D printing.

Rutter said he is most interested in mechanical engineering.

“As a little kid I would take stuff apart, mess with it and see how it works,” Rutter said. “The mechanical part of stuff has always interested me, more than other stuff. I enjoy designing stuff too.”

Rutter said he is a backyard mechanic.

“Every time my dad needs help on the car I jump out there and I help him,” Rutter said. “I get hands on. We are backyard mechanics. It passes on through the generations.”

Beth Leavitt, who teaches principles of engineering and physics at Wade Hampton, said the 60 students who visited the expo are in the school’s Project Lead the Way – Pathway to Engineering program.

“They are getting skills that normally you wouldn’t get until you went into college or two-year tech program,” Leavitt said.

Reach Bill Poovey at 864-235-5677, ext. 104

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