Manufacturing Day in Fort Smith includes math and robotics

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 184 views 

National Manufacturing Day has been a chance to promote the sector and lobby for renewed interest in making stuff in the U.S.A., but for a group of Junior High students from Fort Smith the day included “weird angles,” math and career options.

KMF Metal Fabrication was among the companies to open its doors to the public Friday, with a group of students from Darby Junior High School's Technology Student Association taking a tour of the company's facility in north Fort Smith.

Vice President Christy Koprovic of KMF Metal Fabrication led the student tour Friday morning and told the students about the various skills needed to not only operate the machines found inside KMF, but also to be able to properly measure and make goods needed by other manufacturing facilities in the region who use the machines and items KMF produces. Among the skills needed in the trade are math and science, she said.

"They couldn't do anything without math," she told the students. "And we need people who can think. Critical thinking is extremely important."

Philip Chadwick, assistant supervisor of production at KMF, told students how operating a metal-bending machine requires him to understand measurements and geometry and properly operate the computerized machine.

"To bend it correctly, I have to take measurements because if it's too thick, it breaks (the machine). With the weird angles, that's really where the math comes in."

Koprovic alerted the students to the potential in manufacturing, explaining that often the salary and benefits within the industry are among the best in the local economy. But she said as the industry continues to change, the students must use the skills they are learning now in order to be prepared for a career that can start as soon as some students leave their high school graduation ceremony.

Keith Smith, an instructor of engineering and technology education classes at Darby, said that was part of why he encouraged students to take part in the Manufacturing Day events and to take classes as early as junior high.

"It's real important to get these kids focused early on an area and get them thinking about (a career field) so when they get to high school, they're taking the correct classes that match up to the type of career they're most interested in."

National Manufacturing Day was celebrated Friday (Oct. 3) in the Fort Smith region with events that started early in the morning.

At the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce's First Friday Breakfast, Melissa Hanesworth, chairman of the Chamber's board of directors and managing director at Pernod Ricard, noted that Fort Smith was the largest manufacturing hub in the state as she introduced the morning's speaker, Jon Harrison. Harrison was previously the plant manager for Caterpillar's North Little Rock facility.

Harrison noted the decline in manufacturing within the United States and in Arkansas specifically in the last decade.

The Fort Smith area manufacturing sector employed an estimated 18,000 in August, down from 18,200 in July, and down from 18,400 August 2013. Sector employment is down almost 37% from a decade ago when August 2004 manufacturing employment in the metro area stood at 28,400. Also, the annual average monthly employment in manufacturing has fallen from 28,900 in 2005, 19,200 in 2012, and to 18,300 in 2013.

The Northwest Arkansas manufacturing sector employed an estimated 26,200 in August, down from 26,300 July, and down from the 26,500 during August 2013. Sector employment is down 21.3% from more than a decade ago when August 2004 manufacturing employment in the metro area stood at 33,300.

Harrison showed figures that pointed to how the U.S. was second in the world in the number of manufacturing jobs lost in recent years, but noted Germany — another nation with a large manufacturing economy — was near the bottom of the list for the number of jobs lost.

The reason, he said, was because Germany was doing things the United States had not been doing until recently.

"Germany is much more proactive in these areas," he said, noting that bureaucracy was not as large of a burden in the European nation, taxes were simpler and education and training was central to the evolving manufacturing methods in use across Germany.

Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, said changes are taking place locally – to include robotics and other specialized skills training – to make the economy more adaptable to changes in manufacturing. He said it is one of the reasons the Fort Smith area would be able to maintain and possibly grow the number of manufacturing jobs in the community as more companies look to locate facilities in the United States.

"The old days of a lot of the hands-on manufacturing has left the U.S. and I think that's a natural purge in the market. So we see the high-tech manufacturing skills is definitely the future and that's one of the reasons UAFS' (robotics program) and manufacturing is going to work for Fort Smith where it may not work for other communities," he said.

The robotics certificate program at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith was announced this year and targeted at providing the market with skilled technicians to work on robotic machines in factories across the region and the state. Currently, no licensed technicians are found in Arkansas.

To highlight the program, UAFS opened Friday its robotics lab at the Baldor Center for tours. Dr. Ken Warden, associate vice chancellor for workforce development at UAFS, said it was important to open up the labs for the public to understand not only the importance of robotics in manufacturing, but the job prospects still available in the industry.

"There are really good jobs in the Fort Smith region and the manufacturing sector. Giving students, whether they're senior high, junior high, K-12 students an opportunity to see the technology and the skills it takes and the wages that are associated with these high skills – that's a really good thing. (We're enabling) these kids to see what's available and the options that are there for them to make a good living as they leave the high school arena and coupling these jobs back to the university experience."