Greenville Tech teaches students advanced manufacturing skills with new interactive exhibits

Terrell Chancellor, an eighth grade student from Fisher Middle School, test out an augmented reality exhibit that highlights how manufacturing labs are used to make products. Photo by Katie Fenske.

Terrell Chancellor, like many kids, can’t name any jobs that interest him. But the eighth-grader loves computers, an interest Greenville Technical College is working to turn into an advanced manufacturing career.

On Thursday, about 20 eighth-grade students from Fisher Middle School, including Chancellor, visited Greenville Technical College’s Gene Haas Center for Manufacturing Innovation to learn about mechatronics and machine tool technology.

The lessons are part of General Electric’s Bridge to Learning, a collection of interactive exhibits that aim to showcase advanced manufacturing career opportunities to area middle and high school students.

“Students usually can’t go inside a manufacturing facility,” said David Clayton, director of the Center for Manufacturing Innovation. “Our exhibits allow them to experience CNC machining, 3-D printing, and other disciplines.”

The exhibits are comprised of various manufacturing elements, ranging from robotics to 3-D printing. One station allows students to use touchscreens to see how tools in the center’s manufacturing labs are used to make products.

Other stations allow students to use 3-D printing and modeling to solve a manufacturing problem. An augmented reality station allows students to explore the center’s machine shop floor and discover the purpose of each machine.

“Many students don’t know what advanced manufacturing is,” said Kurt Goodwin, general manager for advanced manufacturing at GE. “We’re hoping these exhibits inspire kids to pursue this career path, because we need a pipeline.”

Greenville County is the epicenter of manufacturing in South Carolina, ranking first in gross regional project, first in total payroll for all industries, and third in the number of individuals employed in the private sector.

However, many of those working in manufacturing are retiring, and there aren’t enough workers to take their place, often because of the misconception of manufacturing being a dirty and low-skill profession.

The Center for Manufacturing Innovation, paid for with a $25 million bond issued by Greenville County, opened last year to attack the skills gap that exists in the workforce as manufacturers seek skilled technicians and engineers to fill positions.

To combat misconceptions about manufacturing, GE gave the center $500,000 last year for the Bridge to Learning. “One of the challenges is that many students don’t think about manufacturing as a career,” said Clayton. “The center was designed to capture the attention of students, and these exhibits really add to the ‘wow’ factor.”

The center currently hosts weekly field trips for area students. From a glass-walled lobby, students can look down on the center’s ground floor equipped with three- and five-axis lathes, a vertical turning lathe, 3-D printers, hydraulic and pneumatic robots and simulators.

“Students typically tour the facility and watch films about manufacturing,” said Clayton. “Now they can actually run these machines, which is a big step forward.”

Clayton said the Bridge to Learning is the first phase of interactive exhibits. The center plans to add more exhibits focused on robotics and open its 3-D printing labs to students.

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