Bright Lights at WESTEC 2013
By Michael C. Anderson
When WESTEC 2013 opened its doors at the Los Angeles Convention Center on October 15, it was, with US manufacturing itself, still under the shadow of the US government shutdown and impending debt crisis, and in the fog of ongoing economic uncertainty. But the venerable West Coast manufacturing event showed signs of a brighter future for the industry. Such as:
Government That Gets It
Two weeks into the government shutdown, politicians were polling lower than tooth decay nationally—but one wouldn’t know it from the warm reception given to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti as he opened WESTEC with a call for a US economy that puts more emphasis on production and less on consumption. The Los Angeles region—the largest manufacturing hub in the country—is poised to create more manufacturing jobs, he said, but more needs to be done to get potential workers ready for those jobs.
“We need to start skills training at an early age to make sure we have folks ready for manufacturing jobs,” the mayor said, promising that his administration will work with public schools and community colleges to promote STEM courses. Nationally, a production-centered economy will be the way to drive innovation and push the country forward, he said: “Innovation is not just good for Los Angeles—it’s good for the world.”
Garcetti toured a number of booths and chatted easily with exhibitors after his opening remarks. Those remarks went over well with the morning crowd of WESTEC attendees and exhibitors. “He seems to get it,” commented one attendee: Garcetti’s willingness to speak up for more and better STEM training puts him in the company of a growing number of politicians, in both parties, who recognize this need. “Better late than never,” muttered another attendee.
New Exhibitors, New Technologies
Events such as WESTEC have a singular thrill: that of seeing, over and over again, in booths and aisles, people talking together to find answers to manufacturing problems. More than 500 companies exhibited new innovations and technologies at WESTEC 2013, including 68 first-time exhibitors. The new exhibitors, ranging from A1 Laser International to Zhejiang Headman Machinery Co., included established brands, small businesses and divisions of well-known companies such as EMAG, GROB Group, Haas Automation and Hyundai WIA. WESTEC 2013 featured more than 250 new products and technologies—each a sought-after answer for someone.
WESTEC 2013 also featured a series of additive manufacturing resources for manufacturers, including an additive manufacturing/3D printing resource center, additive panel discussion, and additive manufacturing certificate program. The resource center served as a convening location for new technologies and information. On display were parts representing major additive manufacturing technologies, including stereolithography, laser sintering and fused deposition modeling. The Additive Panel Discussion, held on Wednesday, 16 October, addressed various questions surrounding the future of the technology.
Curiousity’s Long Reach
At baseball camp or band camp, a kid sometimes gets the chance to learn from someone who has made it to the big time, a major-leaguer or a ‘name’ musician who can show the connection between what they do on a big stage and what the youngster is doing locally. Manufacturing engineers at WESTEC got their version of such an experience by way of a keynote address from NASA Jet Propulsion Lab Engineer Adam Steltzner. Steltzner led the team responsible for designing, testing and building the entirely novel sky crane landing system for the Curiosity rover. The sky crane allowed for a precise landing ellipse, opening up many areas of Mars for exploration that were previously inaccessible due to uneven terrain.
In a presentation entitled “A Different Way to Get to Mars—The Engineering Challenge,” Steltzner walked through the engineering and manufacturing challenges his team faced prior to Curiosity’s successful Mars landing on August 5, 2012. Steltzner, who with his pierced ears, snakeskin boots and Elvis Presley haircut, has been regularly described as NASA’s “rock star,” spoke with evident excitement about the project and the challenges of space exploration in general. The excitement was matched by that heard in the voices of some of the audience members, in the Q&A session that followed the presentation, as they spoke, engineer to engineer, with one of their own who made the big time.
The PRIME Example
The brightest lights at WESTEC were probably in the eyes of the dozens of students from Esperanza High and Hawthorne High schools who were there to show their burgeoning engineering skills as well as to take in the sights. Both schools have been designated PRIME model schools by the SME Education Foundation (SME-EF). PRIME—Partnership Response In Manufacturing Education—is a community-based approach to manufacturing education, designed to help address the shortage of manufacturing and technical talent in the US. PRIME schools partner with local manufacturing businesses to offer students a range of valuable benefits: mentoring, tours of businesses, job shadowing and internships. Schools also receive funding to support postsecondary scholarships, equipment upgrades, STEM-based summer camps (for middle school kids) and continuing education for instructors.
The Esperanza and Hawthorne students were obviously smart, confident kids: whether explaining a team project to a curious reporter or trading fist-bumps with the mayor of LA, they were eloquent, relaxed, and apparently having a wonderful time. They seemed to believe that—dare I say it?—manufacturing is cool.
Before WESTEC 2013 ended, the government shutdown had ended and the threat of default postponed at least until January. And the skies above WESTEC, and US manufacturing, stayed blue.