Assembly Required: Vermont Tech’s New Manufacturing Degree Program Builds Better Workers

07 Jun 2017

If Vermont manufacturers could design and assemble the ideal employee to join their future workforce, that person would look a lot like Ethan Guillemette.

[Read the article originally published in Seven Days.]

The 24-year-old, who’s built like a defensive lineman, grew up working on his family’s 200-head dairy farm in Shelburne, where he learned to take apart and repair farm implements when they broke down. If his father or one of his uncles wanted to modify or improve a piece of equipment, they’d design and rebuild it themselves, as Guillemette did for his high school senior project: a 16-foot trailer he constructed from scratch. When Guillemette wasn’t studying or working on the farm, he drove an 18-wheeler for Bellavance Trucking in Barre.

Such hands-on skills are increasingly rare, but manual dexterity alone doesn’t explain why Guillemette, a newly minted college grad, has a wealth of job prospects to choose from. He’s in demand because he also knows how to program and operate a CNC, or computer numerical code, controller to run tools such as lathes, mills, routers and grinders. He understands the fundamentals of thermodynamics, electrical conductivity, fluid dynamics, and the statics and strengths of different materials. And he can program a brand-new robot to do a “handshake,” or interaction, with a milling machine that was built 30 years ago.

In short, he understands and speaks the language of advanced manufacturing. That means he can take a product from concept to design to prototype to mass production — skills that are highly valued in today’s high-tech manufacturing environment.

Guillemette is one of 10 students who just graduated from a new degree program at Vermont Technical College; the four-year bachelor’s of science in manufacturing engineering technology is the first of its kind in Vermont. Every member of the inaugural class has at least one job offer.

The course of study is meant to address the single biggest challenge facing the state’s advanced manufacturers today: a widening skills gap between their personnel needs and those that the typical high school or college graduate can deliver.

That mismatch is “only getting bigger — significantly bigger,” said Chris Gray, an assistant professor in Vermont Tech’s department of mechanical engineering technology who teaches in the program.

Gray said that Vermont wants its middle-schoolers to understand how their geometry and algebra classes are applicable to fields such as advanced manufacturing so that by the time they get to high school, they’ll have many more career options.

“We’re thrilled to see this program actually become a reality,” Bob Zider, director and CEO of the Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center, said of the new Vermont Tech degree. “I think it will help address the needs of our manufacturing community in a better way.”

In the last year, there’s been plenty of public discussion and media coverage about U.S. manufacturing going to other countries, especially Mexico, China and India. In 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump made the loss of American factory jobs a centerpiece of his campaign — and, based on his victories in the Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, that message clearly struck a chord with thousands of blue-collar voters.

But the widespread outsourcing of U.S. manufacturing jobs to more cost-effective plants overseas is only part of the story. Economists point out that many other positions were lost, not to cheap foreign labor, but to computers, robots and automation. As Sean Gregory notes in his May 29 Time magazine article, “The Jobs That Weren’t Saved,” robots now perform about 10 percent of all manufacturing worldwide, a figure that’s predicted to rise to 25 percent by 2025.

In Vermont, similar trends are reshaping manufacturing, the state’s largest private-industry sector, which comprises nearly 10 percent of its gross domestic product. In 1997, 44,000 Vermonters worked in manufacturing, according to VMEC figures. By 2010, the number had fallen to 31,000 — about a 25 percent decline.

But as Zider pointed out, average worker productivity during that same time period actually rose by about 70 percent. In short, the average Vermonter employed in manufacturing produced about 2.5 times more in 2010 than he or she did in 1997.

Most of those advances, Zider noted, resulted from improvements in manufacturing technologies as well as the adoption of so-called “lean manufacturing” techniques — the term for producing goods faster, cheaper and more sustainably without sacrificing quality. But in order for local companies to keep pace with those technological advances, they need highly trained workers who understand the processes behind them, such as injection versus extrusion molding and pneumatic versus hydraulic systems.

Cathy Tempesta is director of human resources at GW Plastics in Bethel, an advanced manufacturer of products for the medical devices and automotive safety industries. She said her company, like many others in Vermont, needs to reverse a lot of outdated or inaccurate stereotypes about the word “manufacturing.” For years, she said, middle and high school students have been told by parents or school counselors that it meant either working in a mindless, dirty and dead-end job on an assembly line — or it required a PhD in electromechanical engineering or computer science to build robots and artificial intelligence. As school districts have looked for ways to trim budgets, many have eliminated vocational training.

“So we kind of fell off the map,” Tempesta said, “and our traditional ways of recruiting stopped working.”

Two years ago, GW approached Vermont Tech to help alter those perceptions. As part of the company’s long-term strategic plan to grow its local workforce (see below) it decided, in the words of VMEC’s Zider, “to put some skin in the game.” GW donated $35,000 toward Vermont Tech’s new Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory, one of five new manufacturing labs on the Randolph Center campus.

It was quiet and student-free last week during a tour of Vermont Tech’s new $2 million manufacturing training facility. “Shop class” doesn’t look the way it did 20 years ago. The half dozen Bridgeport milling machines all have brand-new, 2017 CNC controllers like those in many manufacturing facilities around the country.

As in most modern plants, Vermont Tech’s has an open floor plan, which allows students to reconfigure their workspace for the specific tasks at hand. In one corner, an industrial plastics training machine is nowhere near as large or complex as those found 10 miles down the road at GW. Still, Gray said the machine is ideal for teaching students the various methods used in making molded plastic products such as pill bottles, screwdriver handles and Frisbee golf discs.

At another workstation, Gray showed how his manufacturing students created an automated process to build handheld maze games for kids, designed to look like the classic Nintendo Game Boy, only without any electronics.

As part of that senior project, Gray explained, the students had to create an “automated lights-out assembly process.” In layman’s terms, that means that, at the touch of a button, the system would work through the night without any human intervention — hence the “lights out” — to produce a series of parts for the next day. The project, which involved about 500 hours of labor, included teaching a 20-year-old CNC milling machine to communicate with a brand-new robot.

While the students slept, the robot would grab a piece of aluminum out of a feeder, drop it into the milling machine and cut a maze pattern. Next, the robot would flip the aluminum piece over, cut another maze, then drop it on a visioning system for inspection the next day.

“What we’re trying to encourage … is: Think process, not product,” Gray explained. “What are the processes that go into what they’re making?”

In an adjoining laboratory, students learn inspection and metrology, or the science of measurement, which are necessary both for designing parts and ensuring their quality. Though incoming freshmen don’t necessarily need advanced calculus in order to succeed in this program, Gray said, they do need to understand that mathematics is the language of engineering.

“There’s an old saying in manufacturing,” he said. “You can’t build something unless you can measure it.”

In another laboratory, Gray showed off the jigs and fixtures his students came up with as part of an arrangement that lets them work on actual projects for Heco Engineering in Essex Junction (see below). This job was complicated: The purpose of the device couldn’t be revealed to the student engineers because the final product hadn’t been patented yet. Eventually, they learned that it was a device to repel bats from wind turbines.

In the next lab, Gray showed off the school’s new water jet, the only one of its kind in an academic setting in Vermont. This $100,000 piece of machinery uses a mixture of granulated garnet and high-pressure water, shot through a nozzle at 30,000 to 40,000 pounds per square inch, to cut through anything from aluminum to six-inch industrial steel.

Gray’s graduating seniors used this huge cutter to mass-produce Vermont Tech key chains, which the students later sold to raise money to buy more equipment.

With manufacturing technology changing so rapidly, how does Vermont Tech intend to remain up-to-date on the latest industry practices? Gray, who’s spent the last 32 years straddling industry and education, emphasized that this program is not about memorizing code or knowing how to operate the most state-of-the-art machinery. It’s about training students to solve practical, real-world problems.

“Because of the way Vermont Tech teaches, you learn the process from start to finish,” Guillemette said. “That way, you can be more useful as a designer, as a toolmaker, because you know how it all has to come together. Not only is it enjoyable for me, but I can see a finished product afterward … This is what I’ve always wanted to do.”

Policymakers are already on board. Hours before the tour, Gray attended a meeting entitled “Pathways into advanced manufacturing” with Vermont Tech president Pat Moulton and Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe.

The old educational model, in which college-bound high school students didn’t “waste their time” on vocational training, is being turned on its head. Holcombe described Vermont Tech’s advanced manufacturing program as “an ideal nexus” for “building new career pathways” and “boosting workforce preparation opportunities” for students interested in technical fields.

Those fields already provide some of Vermont’s highest-paying jobs. In 2014, the average wage in manufacturing in Vermont was $55,290, about 29 percent higher than the statewide average wage of $43,017. Benefits tend to be generous and often include creative perks such as yoga classes and fly-fishing clinics.

According to Zider, every dollar of goods manufactured in Vermont generates an additional $1.40 in economic activity and supports another 4.9 jobs. “If you look at the whole supply chain,” he added, “they need legal support, accounting support, marketing support, so … this is an enterprise that has tentacles out there touching all facets of our economy.”

During the summer, Gray works for the American Precision Museum in Windsor. There he likes to remind visitors of Vermont’s role in the Industrial Revolution. It was at the Robbins & Lawrence factory in Windsor, he said, where the world’s first interchangeable parts were made, giving rise to the country’s precision machine tool industry.

About 60 percent of the rifles used in the Civil War were designed and produced in Windsor. During World War II, Gray added, Adolph Hitler drew up a list of potential targets to bomb on the East Coast. According to local lore, the cluster of Vermont manufacturing plants known as “Precision Valley” was on it.

Green Mountain factories may not be in the crosshairs of America’s adversaries today, but whether they produce socks, cheese, ice cream or drug-delivery devices, Gray pointed out, each is engaged in a form of manufacturing.

“For an economy to grow, you’ve got to make something,” he said. “If we do anything well at Vermont Tech, it’s preparing students for change … What they’re going to be doing in five years hasn’t even been invented yet.”