For those unfamiliar with the new Manufacturing Lab at Ulster County BOCES’ Port Ewen facility, its recent open house was an education in and of itself.
The lab itself is a large room with highly polished floors and about 10 medium-large box-like machines. Attached to most of the machines were computer displays, flashing varied and ever-shifting forms of numeric and alphabetic data. The machines themselves whirred, grinded and squealed with activity. Through windows in them, one could watch tools do their work, moving with programmed precision as they shaved and shaped pieces of metal into useful items — some so useful that they’d one day be taken up to the International Space Station.
Pretty cool stuff, and a long long ways away from the shop classes many of us recall from our high school days. But as industry has changed, industrial arts training has changed too, morphing into a far more technical and complex practice.
“We want people to see what we have going on,” teacher Mark Harris said. “I don’t think people realize what we have going on at a high school level.”
A reporter remarked that one machine seemed like a 3D-printer on “super steroids” — Harris basically agreed, but pointed out that while 3D-printing is an “additive process” (the final product is made from nothing using an all-purpose material) the milling machines are “subtractive” — one puts a block of material in the machine and the machine, properly programmed, cuts away what’s not needed, much like sculptors of old worked.
“It machines whatever you design,” said Harris. “These parts are going to go to the space station. We built a solar car in 2013 that raced from Texas Motor Speedway to LA. We’re doing another one that’s going to go from Texas Motor Speedway to Minneapolis. … Not many kids can say they’ve made a solar car or built stuff for NASA or made an exoskeletal hand — by the end of the year, I hope to have a patent on that one.”
Dozens of local educators, industry types and media people were on hand for the open house, getting a revealing look at how both high-school and continuing education students are trained to fill local, decent-paying, in-demand jobs.
“Manufacturers are consistently naming developing their workforce as their number-one issue,” said Howard King of the Southeastern New York Council of Industry. “That’s why Ulster BOCES is such a tremendous partner for us. … It’s going to make a huge difference going forward.”
Many of the machines — the very same units actually used in factories today — in the lab were donated by the Haas Foundation. “These are not toys — these are real-deal machines that people are going to go into a shop and use,” said Haas Factory Outlet Vice President Marty McGill. “These are what manufacturers are using.”
Haas Factory Outlet, a Division of Allendale Machinery Systems, has been working closely with Ulster BOCES for more than 17 years to provide local manufacturers opportunities for training and finding employees, according to BOCES officials. “We’re committed to giving back to the community and specifically to manufacturing education,” said Haas Foundation administrator Kathy Looman, noting that the foundation gives out $2 million a year in help to schools.
Another new feature shown off was the Innovation Science Lab, a space where students could conceive and design new products. On display there was a project to design a more comfortable gun belt for law-enforcement personnel.
One theme hit upon by a number of speakers was a desire to in a sense rehabilitate the image of vo-tech education, to refute the notion that it was somehow inferior to a college-bound track. (One might think that being able to get a decent job right out of high school or after some post high-school training to begin life without being saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars of student-loan debt would make that argument itself.)
“Our job is to get more students to be enthusiastic about getting into the classroom and learning these skills for these manufacturing careers,” said King. “We’re working with our brains, not our brawn … It’s programs like this which elevate the level of skills that are out there being taught.”
“It shows you where BOCES has evolved from what it used to be to what it is now: high-tech manufacturing, which is very appropriate for our area,” Kingston City School District Superintendent Paul Padalino said. “It’s the evolution of education and it goes a long way to change the idea of what BOCES is.”
Very impressed by the display was Kingston Armory President Michael Kera. Kingston Armory, based in Liberty, manufactures a line of .22-caliber “retro firearms” like the M-1 Garand and M-14. Kera said they look like the originals but fire .22-caliber long-rifle rounds.
“This is awesome. Absolutely first-class, top-notch,” said Kera. “Even more importantly, you have a first-class, absolutely top-of-the-heap instructor in Mark Harris. Couldn’t do any better if you tried.”
Kera confirmed that it’s not easy for manufacturers to find qualified workers. “We do have trouble [finding qualified people],” Kera said. “We’re a startup. Being in Liberty, it’s not near any urban centers, so trying to find talented, qualified, motivated people for programming, machine operating, things like that — we’re kind of on the fringe of the talent pool. [Programs like this] are absolutely essential.”