Mobile labs bring manufacturing equipment to high schools

November 4, 2013

From “Thriving manufacturing sector shows it stuff at Expo” — The breadth and depth of Wisconsin’s manufacturing sector was on display at the Manufacturing First Expo & Conference.

Clintonville’s Specialized Products Ltd., Middleton’s Meridian Laboratory, Green Bay’s The Lake Companies and many others demonstrated why Wisconsin is the nation’s second-largest manufacturing state. More than 16 percent of the state’s economy is tied to manufacturing, and to hear business representatives tell it Thursday at the KI Convention Center in downtown Green Bay, business is good.

Gina Webster of Specialized Products said a statement that Wisconsin’s manufacturing sector grew 35 percent during the last four years seems right.

“That sounds pretty consistent with what we experienced,” she said. “This year has been down a little, but last year we had a fantastic year.”

The positive attitude among Wisconsin manufacturers also reflects a national trend. U.S. factory activity expanded in October at the fastest pace in 2½ years. Overseas demand and healthy U.S. auto sales appear to be supporting factory output. The housing recovery is also lifting the furniture and wood products industry despite a recent slowing in home sales.

The Institute for Supply Management’s manufacturing index for October rose to 56.4 from 56.2 in September. A reading above 50 indicates growth.

U.S. factory activity has now risen at an increasingly fast pace for five straight months, according to the ISM’s index. In October, a measure of new orders rose slightly. And a gauge of production fell but remained at a high level. Factories added jobs, though more slowly than in September.

Factories also expanded in Europe this month, though at a slightly slower pace, according to surveys in that region. Manufacturing indexes have all picked up in China, Japan, and South Korea.

The overseas strength is boosting demand for U.S. factories. A measure of export orders jumped to its highest level in nearly a year and a half in October, the ISM report said.

Meridian Laboratory in Middleton is representative of many small Wisconsin businesses that do precision work for global distribution. A quarter of its rotary-electrical products go to Korea and 20 percent to Japan. It has a growing presence in China, and the rest goes to customers throughout the United States. The company has 11 employees. Most of them have been with the company for 20 years or more.

The company’s willingness to do small precision orders fills a niche, said Sven Krause, new business development manager.

“We are small, specialized and specific,” he said.

Specialized of Clintonville specializes in wire-harness assembly, electromechanical assemblies, soldering, mold production and prototyping, among other things. The company has 130 employees.

“Probably our biggest problem is we’ve grown so fast in 20 years,” Webster said.

For The Lake Companies, the challenge is finding workers with Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software and manufacturing experience. The software services vendor has 35 employees.

“We have always been challenged at that,” said Karen Sikorski, senior account manager.

One solution has been to hire former employees of customers — they don’t go after current workers — or find people with ERP experience in other industries.

Sikorski said a number of their customers are expanding, adding either work areas or employees.

Creating new manufacturing workers was one theme of Thursday’s event. Northeast Wisconsin Technical College of Green Bay and Lakeshore Technical College of Cleveland were on-site with mobile training labs, and groups of high school students toured the exhibit hall, which had more than 130 vendors.

The mobile labs allow the college to expose high school students to up-to-date equipment.

“As you drive down to the high school level, the biggest challenge you have is facilities,” said Peter Thillman, dean of workforce and economic development at Lakeshore. “That’s the big thing, to get the equipment in their hands.”

Kevin Grabian, instructor for NWTC, said jobs are available to those who want and prepare for them.

“You can come out of TC with an electromechanical degree and have your pick,” he said. “You can’t be just an electrical guy or just a mechanical guy. They want both.”

The expo was sponsored by First Business Bank-Northeast, Insight magazine and NEW Manufacturing Alliance.



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