Hypertherm, Fujifilm Dimatix Partner With Area High Schools

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 2/17/2018 11:38:06 PM
Modified: 2/17/2018 11:38:06 PM

Lebanon — The manufacturing companies around Etna and Heater Roads in Lebanon have been likened to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory: the work that goes on behind their walls is hidden and a bit mysterious yet filled with the sense that something pretty cool is going on under those roofs.

If only there was a way to get a peek inside and see what’s going on.

Now a new education program introduced by two of the city’s leading manufacturers in conjunction with two Upper Valley high schools aims to demystify the basics of what the companies do and hopefully turn students on to careers in advanced manufacturing.

Hypertherm and Fujifilm Dimatix are partnering with Lebanon High School and Thetford Academy on a semester-long program that will rotate students through production teams at each company and immerse them into all stages of the production process.

The selected students will also earn math and science credits toward graduation as part of their participation and will be introduced to valuable workforce training skills in a growing sector of the economy that perennially is in short supply of qualified workers.

The students, eight from each school, will split the fall semester between Hypertherm and Fujifilm on each afternoon during the week and gain insight into all phases of manufacturing, from product concept to design, cost analysis, engineering, building, marketing and human resources.

Hands-on experience will be supplemented by course work on site at Fujifilm and Hyperthem led by company employees.

Hypertherm makes powerful plasma-cutting equipment and Fujifilm makes sophisticated industrial print jets. By immersing the students in the manufacturing process, the program’s sponsors are seeking to lift the shroud around what they do, with a factory floor that can look more like an operating room than a traditional assembly line, and shake off the image of manufacturing’s smokestack past.

“We feel that in our communities there is very little understanding of what advanced manufacturing is all about,” said Mike Baymiller, vice president of human resources at Hypertherm. “It’s important to understand what type of jobs and career opportunities exist — it’s probably not what they have as preconceived notions of traditional manufacturing.”

The four-way partnership builds upon two other programs Hypertherm forged in recent years with the Lebanon School District to foster student interest in so-called STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — education that aim to steer students toward college degrees or careers in the field.

The first, Hypertherm Summer Institute, now entering its fourth year, offers paid summer internships to high school students where they job shadow Hypertherm workers and are introduced to hands-on experience operating CNC machines. The second, Middle School STEM Camp, which launched last year, takes students during mid-winter break in February and introduces them to modern manufacturing principles through such exercises as Lego building blocks and other fun-as-you-learn activities.

Those predecessor programs “turned into a conversation of OK, well, if we’ve introduced students to STEM wouldn’t it be fantastic if they could have the opportunity to earn credit in high school while also providing them with an authentic career-readiness experience,” said Joanne Roberts, superintendent of schools for Lebanon.

That began an 18-monthlong preparation and coordination process to design a program that would meet state and district educational requirements that culminated in the Lebanon School Board voting to approve the program earlier this month. Students will be selected from among a pool of applicants — applicants are expected to outnumber spots — and spend eight weeks on site at each employer to and from which they will be bussed from their school.

Once completed, students will have a leg up regardless of their post-high school plans, the organizers said.

“The students will leave high school with credits and a competitiveness that other students might not have when applying to college or talking to employers,” Roberts said. “It will really open doors for them.”

Although students will have had to pass Algebra I in order to apply, the program is designed to accommodate students of varying academic levels and interests — from those interested in studying engineering in college to those seeking a licensing credential at a community college and even those who want to enter the workforce right after high school.

“This program is designed for kids who might be going to college or might not be going to college after graduation,” said Bill Bugg, head of school of Thetford Academy. “We’re not only looking for the academically strong students, we’re looking for those students who stand to gain from hands-on education. We’re looking for a kid who has some intrinsic motivation but may not know what he or she wants to do.”

Students at Fujifilm “will follow the lifecycle of a printhead,” the company said, “studying the production process, material science, failure analysis engineering. Testing (and) design.”

At Hypertherm, students will begin with a business proposal for a new product and be exposed to the manufacturing process from design to testing and through marketing and sales, spending about 70 percent of time in class and 30 percent of the time on manufacturing.

As an idea of how the program will work, Hypetherm’s workforce development manager, Matt McKinney, explained in detail to the Lebanon School Board on Jan. 24 that students will begin by meeting with the HR department to get an overview of what the company does and the opportunities available in a large manufacturing company such as Hypertherm.

“From there we will introduce them to a project which will be a product development project ... they’ll be working on engineering, they’ll be working on cost analysis, statistical analysis ... and they will work through our product development process and develop a product they will be presenting as a completed project at the end of the program, complete with a marketing package, cost analysis and customer needs analysis that goes along with it,” he said.

The four-way partnership credits retired Upper Valley school superintendent Jacqueline Guillette as the “facilitator” who guided the program from concept through fruition.

Guillette now runs her own consulting firm and is employed by Whelen Engineering in Charlestown, for which she helped organize Whelen’s Little League of Manufacturing program with the Claremont School District that created a curriculum for high school students to foster their interest in advanced manufacturing.

Like the Lebanon program, the Whelen program involves high school students from Stevens High School arriving by bus at the Charletown plant of the emergency vehicle lighting manufacturer, where they spend an hour a day for 45 days, Guillette said.

“The high school students said 45 days was too short because there were a lot of things we saw that we didn’t get to, would you please write a level two class? When high school students ask for more you know you got something,” she said.

Guillette said she continues to be paid by Whelen — she credits former company president John Olson for conceiving of the Little League of Manufacturing program and advocating for its expansion — to work with other manufacturers and school districts to model similar initiatives.

The Lebanon program kicked into gear when Fujifilm human resources manager Lucy Lesperance-Glaude reached out to Guillette, with whom Lesperance-Glaude earlier had worked with to try and establish a hands-on manufacturing learning program with North Hartland Tool Corp. at Woodstock Union High School. That effort ultimately never came together.

“When I got over to Fujifilm I called Jacqui and I said this is the place to make it happen,” Lesperance-Glaude said. “Luckily, we had two schools completely on board with it, and luckily we have Hypertherm, which has the Summer Institute and STEM Camp, who was very helpful in getting our plans together. To be honest if it wasn’t for them I don’t know how far we would have got in this process.”

In researching how to develop the program, the companies and educators visited precision mold manufacturer GW Plastics Inc. in Bethel and Royalton to learn about their School of Tech program, which enrolls high school students in for-credit courses that introduces them to advanced manufacturing.

GW Plastics Chief Executive Brenan Riehl said School of Tech was designed to address the critical shortage of young workers who have the skills to work in an advanced manufacturing facility.

“The demographics in the Upper Valley have not been really supportive with youth movement away, but because of School for Tech, as well as our alliance with Vermont Technical College, we’ve been able to look at training the next generation of skilled workers at our company,” Riehl said.

Fujifilm’s Lesperance-Glaude said entry-level technicians earn about $13 per hour which rises to $23 per hour for Level III employees, a timeline that generally takes a few years. The company also reimburses up to $5,000 annually to students studying toward an undergraduate degree and $6,500 per year for graduate-level study, she said.

Thetford Academy’s Bugg likened the STEM program, in which Thetford and Lebanon high school students will learn first-hand from mentors at FujiFilm and Hypertherm, to apprenticeships that have long been part of the European educational system.

“I think it’s pretty unique and a model for the kind of education that is maybe more common in Europe than it is here where students are doing apprenticeship-type programs,” Bugg said. “It’s incredible exposure to a wide range of opportunities and hopefully somewhere a spark will be ignited and the kids will find their passion.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.

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