Ridgewood students get manufacturing lesson
Mike Cassata, an engineer at Winzeler Gear, talks with Ridgewood High School students during their tour of the facility Nov. 9. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 19, 2012 11:09AM
HARWOOD HEIGHTS— Automation is a driving force at a Harwood Heights automotive parts plant.
And, as students from Ridgewood High School learned, computers are steering the way.
Students of Brian Collier’s computer-aided design class viewed real-world applications during a tour of Winzeler Gear given by Mike Cassata, gear engineer.
Owner John Winzeler said the Harwood Heights company provides these tours to give students an idea of the opportunities available to those who enter the skilled trades.
“I’m extremely concerned about education today,” Winzeler said. “The focus of education has all but eliminated a majority of applied learning opportunities in the industrial arts.”
Winzeler noted employees that run the machines in his business might not have more than a high school degree.
“But they have skills, they’re innovative,” he said. “It’s hard to find these types of people.”
Using plastic injection molding, the company makes a variety of products, such as lumbar support motors and plastic gears with magnets that control automatic braking systems.
Plastic pellets feed through a series of tubes and tanks until they end up at one of the presses.
The local tool and manufacturing association supports schools that still offer instruction in skilled trades, but those schools are far and few between.
“There’s one in Chicago and a couple in the suburbs,” Winzeler said. “But that’s it.
“These schools are generating some of the people going into skilled trade, but most learn by doing.”
Winzeler said he has seen a deterioration in the quality of prospective employees.
“Nobody does anything anymore,” he said. “So many people are used to computers and are glued to screens.”
By working with schools such as Ridgewood, the company wants to make the educational experience more meaningful.
The computer systems that run the presses must put out products with consistency. Cassata explained each piece must be accurate within thousandths of an inch, and the first part produced must be the same as the 21,000th part.
Monitoring that accuracy is a series of computers.
Each press has at least one computer system monitoring operations, and all computers report to a central one that analyzes and stores all information — from flow of plastic pellets to accuracy of product to placement in boxes for transport.
“A wireless system in the shop keeps the computers talking to each other,” Cassata said.
Winzeler said he was worried about a lack of people with the skills necessary to work in manufacturing.
“We’re highly automated, but we still need skilled employees,” he said.