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Focus on the Workforce: Manufacturing Gets Animated

 Joe Micallef


By Joe Micallef
Media Engineer
ACE Clearwater Enterprises
Torrance, CA


As manufacturers we all have a story to tell. At ACE Clearwater it began 60 years ago with Ray Wyckoff, a neighborhood handyman from El Segundo, California. Returning home from the Korean War he found work as a welder, which landed him a job making igniters for Aerojet. At just 13¢ apiece this humble igniter was the spark that propelled ACE into the future.

From that moment on ACE grew. The business was passed down to Tim Dodson, and then to his daughter, Kellie Johnson. From one simple igniter, ACE Clearwater burst to life—its heart began to beat with the rhythmic pounding of drop hammers. Molten metal raced through its veins and the synaptic sparks of welding torches gave birth to a multitude of parts.

With these parts jets took flight and power plants supplied energy to families and businesses nationwide. Of course, this is not ACE’s story alone—this is the story of every manufacturer and of every man and woman who has strived to keep American manufacturing alive. This is the story of ingenuity, craftsmanship, and success through hard work. What we may easily forget is that this is a story of raw creativity as well. With the creative desire to build and make things one man, Ray Wyckoff, laid the foundation for a business that was passed down through generations. Without that creative spark, ACE may not be here, and neither would the many other manufacturers that would enable a thriving US economy.

So you may ask yourself, why focus on creativity? Digital

Shouldn’t I be talking about new STEM initiatives, kaizen, and lean manufacturing?  Well, I will let you in on a secret. I’m not your typical manufacturer and, yes, I do consider myself a manufacturer in every sense of the word. On a daily basis I run multiple supply chains, create parts in record time, and use software that would challenge the minds of the most accomplished engineers. I’m a Hollywood-trained animator and as a creative professional I work for ACE Clearwater.

At first it may be surprising to see an animator working side-by-side with engineers, but combined, the two disciplines can have an enormous impact in improving communication and learning for the world of manufacturing.

Through animation, we can start to convey a wealth of visual information that extends beyond CAD and ERP. We have total creative control over a wide range of parameters: time, material properties, and fields of view. We can allow engineers to see the inner workings of complicated assemblies, we can enable suppliers to see bottlenecks in supply chains, and we can augment learning by giving students access to virtual factories.

Unknowingly, most engineers using CAD software have already made the first step into the world of animation. Video games, and films studios such as Pixar, create vast digital worlds using the same principles found in CAD and the animation data they generate is highly extendible. This data can be imported to additive printers or be used to solve complex modeling and simulation problems. But above all else, animation enables students to bring their imaginations to life allowing them to connect with worlds they may not otherwise have access to.

ACE felt so strongly about introducing this medium into the world of manufacturing they created a social network called to further the discussion.

Our goal is to dispel the notion that animation is used only for entertainment and cartoons. At ACE we are using animation software, such as Autodesk Maya and Pixologic Zbrush, to create virtual factories, immersive learning tools, and digital recreations of complex manufacturing processes. On the home page of is a short film called “The Digitization of American Manufacturing” describing our process. By promoting animation as a viable training solution for manufacturing, we are enabling new job opportunities for animators while ensuring vital manufacturing knowledge is made accessible to future generations. is just one of ACE’s pro-active measures to ensure success for American Manufacturing. At ACE we’ve created a production studio called DASH 9 ( to create high-end media pieces for marketing, education, and advocacy. “A Celebration of American Manufacturing” ( ) is one of the first media pieces we created to launch these efforts and was used to inaugurate Kellie Johnson as chair for the small and medium-sized manufacturers at the NAM. The other focus of DASH9 is to utilize the growing talent pool of animators and visual effects artists in Southern California to create virtual simulations of real-world manufacturing scenarios.

Through open source initiatives, part of our approach is to enable manufacturers to create their own content.  Open source solutions such as Blender ( can allow manufacturers to explore animation software for free. Conversely, we can use Blender in the classroom to empower a generation of students to become manufacturers. This is the first step in capitalizing on the multi-billion dollar box office fascination with CG animation. By using Blender as a teaching tool we can have students create virtual supply chains and provide them a better understanding of the manufacturing process. A Blender model can be exported as a .stl file and printed from an additive printer, allowing students to create real products from conception to completion.  This immediate feedback can give great satisfaction to a developing mind.

At the root the tools used by manufacturing, Hollywood and video games are the same. NURBS modeling, laser scanning, point clouds, computer generated simulations, supply chain pipelines, prototype fabrication, and additive printing are techniques shared by both industries. Why not take advantage of these commonalities and use the fascination/fanaticism focused on Hollywood and the video game industries to empower manufacturing education? With animation (and art) we can turn STEM into STEAM—and having STEAM at our disposal can be an exciting way to bring manufacturing to the next generation. At ACE our story began with a creative mind and a 13¢ igniter, and this has led us to where we are today. But of course our story is still unwritten.

By taking advantage of the powerful visualization capabilities and the creative potential enabled through animation we can preserve knowledge of the past while manufacturing an exciting future for generations to come. ME


This article was first published in the April 2013 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.  Click here for PDF

Published Date : 4/1/2013

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