Skip to content

Van Buren Tech Shatters Manufacturing Stereotypes

Gabriel “Gabe” Kooyers Advanced Manufacturing Instructor Van Buren Vocational Technical Center
By Gabriel “Gabe” Kooyers Advanced Manufacturing Instructor, Van Buren Vocational Technical Center

It’s easy to tell the quality of an educational institution by the character of its graduates. Van Buren Tech’s Advanced Manufacturing graduates have both the hard and soft skills that make them invaluable employees and ideal continuing students. I am a Van Buren Tech alum myself, and I lead the Advanced Manufacturing program. I am proud of my current students and graduates alike.

Workforce Lead 768x432.jpg
Gabe Kooyers (fourth from left in black polo), Taylor Sexton (middle in gray sweatshirt), Russell Smith (first on left), Riley Traver (fifth from left, in back), Chris Schuman (second row, second from right), and Tyler Spaulding (second row, first on right) with the team from Mastercam.

Over 1,000 students come through the doors of Van Buren Tech in Lawrence, Mich. every day: approximately 500 in the morning and 500 in the afternoon. The center’s four STEM programs—Advanced Manufacturing, Engineering & Architectural Design, Welding, and Polymer Technologies—cater to a diverse group of high school graduates. Van Buren Tech invites students from 15 partnering school districts throughout Southwest Michigan, as well as adults who want skills training, to explore their programs.

The Advanced Manufacturing program’s shop boasts white epoxy floors and high-tech equipment. Students learn on the shop’s Haas VF1, Hurco VM1, nine manual mills, and nine manual lathes. Its 13 seats of Mastercam CAD/CAM software are kept up to date by Axsys Inc., Wixom, Mich., a Mastercam reseller. I rely on Axsys anytime I or my students run into a problem. Axsys also helps me stay up to date with the newest software developments.

For example, the new Quick Part Series is a free collection of project-based learning tutorials. Paired with the Quick Part Interface, which reduces the number of functions shown on-screen, the Quick Part Series teaches students CAM fundamentals by allowing them to take a project from start to finish. Last year, my students made a chocolate mold, one of the first curricula sets to be released. They were able to step right through it all on their own. Student and instructor guides point out concepts to cover, possible problem areas, and quiz questions. Next year, I’m going to use the tutorials immediately. I’m really excited about the new ones coming out.

The result is students who are confident in their CAM abilities and ready to take on the next challenge.

Three of my recently graduated students entered Mastercam’s 2019 Masters of CAM Wildest Parts Competition. The competition dares students to design and machine the most original parts possible. The winning parts are not necessarily the most complex or difficult to make, but the parts that show the most creativity. In addition to having their parts displayed at international education events and trade shows, three winners in each of the four divisions will win prizes up to $3,000 in value.

Riley Traver, a record-breaking track star, recreated the bottom of his track cleats for his Wildest Parts entry. We photocopied the bottom of the shoe and traced it all. Then, in Solid Model, he set up the different work planes. He set it all up and programmed it.

Workforce 2.jpg
Riley Traver with his machined spikes.

Traver machined three sets of the part: one for the competition, one for Van Buren Tech, and one for himself. Each block began as 12.3 lb (5.6 kg) of aluminum 6061, and in the end each weighed 1.5 lb (0.7 kg). This fall, Traver will continue his education at Lake Superior State University, where he will pursue his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering Technologies with a minor in Robotics. Of course, he plans to run track there, too.

Russell Smith’s competition part is a mold for a stylized guitar pick in the shape of a shark’s fin. The self-taught guitarist had already taken advantage of the skills he learned in class numerous times to create gears for his instruments. When Smith’s electronics cover plate for the back of his guitar broke, he wasted no time drawing up the part inside the shop’s CAM software. He then recruited the Polymer Tech class to 3D print a replacement.

Smith showed similar initiative with his competition part; not only did he create the guitar pick mold in an imaginative shark fin style, he added a shark fin image to the mold. Then he experimented with different polymers until he found the perfect stiffness for his guitar pick. Next year, Smith will attend Lake Michigan College to earn its two-year Mechatronics degree. Smith told me, “I learned a lot about manufacturing and the process of programming and designing.”

Van Buren’s final competitor, Taylor Sexton, had been making a name for herself long before she entered the Wildest Parts competition. Sexton was both the Street Stock rookie of the year at the Kalamazoo Speedway and the winner of the 2019 Breaking Traditions Award. The award honors Michigan students who overcame barriers to achieve their goals in a male-dominated field.

Workforce 3.jpg
Taylor Sexton with her finished belt buckle.

For her competition entry, she designed a belt buckle with a racecar on its front. We used Mastercam Art and took a picture of a race car, traced it, and then made it a 3D relief surface. While still attending class at Van Buren Tech, Sexton earned a co-op meant to hone her skills in drawing, solid modeling, programming, and setting up jobs. Within a couple of weeks, though, Sexton was running the machines. Upon completing her co-op, Sexton had her choice of several job offers from various respected shops. She accepted a promising apprenticeship that is sure to evolve into a rewarding career.

After graduation, students have their pick of schools and careers. Some colleges and universities will even pay for the engineering degrees of Van Buren Tech graduates. Students who want to enter the workforce immediately can go to any of the local plastic injection molding shops, auto suppliers, medical suppliers, or job shops. One shop even promises to pay gas money for any employee who lives more than 20 miles away.

All of the industries in this area are screaming for people to get into manufacturing, because in Michigan, over the last 15 years, students have been pushed to go to four-year schools. In the meantime, huge blocks of people were not going into the trades.

With the widening skills gap, in my opinion, it’s time to change how younger generations view manufacturing. We really try to change the paradigm of what manufacturing used to be. Many people go into a shop think it’s going to be an old “grandpa” shop, that it’s dark and dirty. And that’s not what industry is anymore.

I am also fighting back against the stereotype that manufacturing is for students who aren’t cut out for college. The type of students we get like to solve problems and work with their hands. Accuracy is important to them. Most of all, they want to be challenged. That kind of student is already on the right track, but I also try to make them employable. The main thing we hear from employers is they need students who are willing to show up every day and who are willing to put in the effort. So, I created my “Five Pillars of Employment:” show up every day, work the full time you’re there, have a willingness to learn, have a good attitude, and pass a drug screen. That will take you from fast food all the way to aerospace. With those things, you’re trainable, you can fit within the climate and culture of a company, and you can excel.

Any school can teach the hard skills that can get students in the door; Van Buren Tech makes sure our students stay there.

  • View All Articles
  • Connect With Us

Related Articles

Always Stay Informed

Receive the latest manufacturing news and technical information by subscribing to our monthly and quarterly magazines, weekly and monthly eNewsletters, and podcast channel.