July 31, 2017
Focus: Manufacturing

Mobile lab brings advanced manufacturers on-site training

PHOTOs | Contributed
PHOTOs | Contributed
Goodwin College’s advanced manufacturing mobile lab (left) allows college instructors like Al Pucino (right) to help manufacturing workers from various companies improve their skills.
PHOTO | Contributed
ACMT’s Levon Gonzalez, a mobile lab trainee, works at her Manchester plant.

Twenty-three-year-old Levon Gonzalez of East Hartford has taken three workshops in Goodwin College's new advanced manufacturing mobile lab.

Already a standout at ACMT in Manchester, Gonzalez operates coordinate measuring machines (CMMs) used to inspect manufactured gas turbine components. She's learned a new set of skills from the lab that allows her to troubleshoot problems on the shop floor.

"In our workshop they brought in a miniature CMM to show us the programming and how we would get the machine to understand where the part is and what measurements it's taking," Gonzalez said. "It's complicated and something new to learn."

Her employer, ACMT President and Founder Michael G. Polo, says the additional skills are invaluable because now when the equipment technician isn't available, "we have been able to fix things on our own."

Launched last year, the mobile lab offers continuing education workshops crafted by Goodwin College instructors that can both refresh and upgrade the skills of experienced workers while also introducing new employees to advanced manufacturing techniques and equipment — all without leaving the company site.

The lab is essentially a mobile classroom used for incumbent worker training as well as events and middle- and high-school education. It's fitted into a trailer perched on three 44-foot axles that cost about $250,000 to set up. It has its own generator, smartboard and Wi-Fi hotspots, plus a 50-inch high-definition TV that can be used outside, said Cliff Thermer, chairman of the Goodwin College department of business management and advanced manufacturing.

The cost to run the lab for incumbent worker training is about $750 a day. Depending on the type of training and whether workshops are customized, costs per trained individual can run from $450 to $900 each, though companies can leverage subsidies from the state Department of Labor Manufacturing Investment Fund, Thermer said.

Convenience and applicability of the continuing education programs have enabled about eight different companies to train up to 14 workers at a time in the lab, said instructor Al Pucino, the college's director of manufacturing management and quality management systems. Programs range from reading blueprints to using tools for precision measurements.

"I appreciated them coming to us and not taking more time out of my [work]day," said James Bunting, 54, a machinist at Phoenix Manufacturing in Enfield. He received training on how to use tools he was already familiar with — like a digital caliper, which measures aerospace parts — to ensure accurate results.

"It was eye-opening seeing different groups using different instruments to achieve the same goal," he said.

While it's not clear if the lab is the only one in the Northeast, it is the only one that Kansas-based Depco Enterprises LLC, which built it, ever sold in the region, said regional sales manager Ernie Wake. Depco builds three or four a year for programs in other parts of the country, he said.

"The advantage is on-site, real-time training that allows whoever the lab is going to teach to be in their own environment and learn by doing," said Phoenix's President Glenn W. E. Ford, whose company makes hardware and machine components for the aerospace industry.

Both Horst Engineering and Manufacturing Co. of East Hartford and ACMT have used the lab multiple times. Horst, which used the lab twice and paid about $100 a worker after taking advantage of state subsidies, is exploring the possibility of ordering a customized workshop, said Arthur Roti, Horst's general manager.

No matter the subject, Roti said it is less expensive to use the lab than to hire an instructor to come into the company, and there are fewer distractions.

"If workers are in the trailer, that physical barrier makes a big difference," Roti said.

Polo, of ACMT, said the lab is invaluable not just for experienced workers like Gonzalez taking her expertise to the next level, but for new employees with minimal experience in manufacturing. And ACMT, which makes metal and non-metal parts and assemblies for commercial, industrial and military gas turbine manufacturers around the globe, has many new workers, he said.

The company increased its worker roster from 47 people last year to 139 this year, working across three shifts in two buildings, seven days a week.

"There's a lot of training that needs to get done and many of [the workers] are brand new to manufacturing, so it's been a challenge," he said.

For Bunting, the Phoenix employee, the workshop raised his awareness of the importance of a principle like "repeatability" that he can now apply on the shop floor.

He learned, he said, "just to be that much more diligent about using the measuring devices the same way every single time. You can't get complacent. If you do, results tend to suffer."

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