Sterling Heights

Video games, simulations connect with students at Manufacturing Day

It evokes the popular online game series "The Sims", the way the factory floor is viewed from above. But rather than voyeuristic gamers building artificial lives and watching them play out from above, this is a much more serious endeavor.

Robert Young, a simulation supervisor at KUKA Systems North America, is standing at the head of a conference room table, leading a presentation on how the company validates robotic motions through a computer simulation program. But he isn’t demonstrating his work to a room full of customers or factory floor supervisors. Young’s audience is a room full of high school freshmen, ninth-graders from the Utica Center for Science and Industry (UCSI).

Robert Young shows off what simulators at KUKA can do at Manufacturing Day.

Friday, Oct. 4 was Manufacturing Day, also known as MFG Day, at manufacturing facilities across the United States. Numerous companies hosted events across metro Detroit, with several of them in Sterling Heights.

The purpose of the day is to introduce high school students to the prospect of a career in manufacturing. It's industry that is facing a serious workforce shortage. Employers say efforts to address the dearth of young people entering these industries are hampered by preconceived notions of the work.

KUKA's Jennifer Husby wants students to see what manufacturing is really like.

“I think there are a lot of misperceptions about manufacturing—that it’s very manual work," says Jennifer Husby, vice president of human resources at KUKA North America. "But the technology required and the skill-set and the creativity and the initiative and innovation required for this type of work is very exciting."

“With the talent needed in this industry, we know how important it is to make sure that we’re engaging young students to get into our industry and making sure that they understand what opportunities there are."

The opportunities are many. KUKA, a multi-national corporation headquartered in Augsburg, Germany, hires a broad range of workers, from recent high school graduates to those with college degrees. There are manual labor jobs, yes, but also career paths in other areas, like computer engineering.

Husby says that the company is more than happy to train new employees, putting an emphasis on “soft skills” like team-work and self-motivation rather than prior experience or advanced degrees. She estimates a serious workforce shortage, especially in computer engineering, in about five years. As the older generation retires, KUKA and countless companies like them need the younger workforce to be ready to replace them.

That’s why MFG Day exists, to help fill that talent pipeline.

At this year's MFG Day, 45 ninth-graders filed into KUKA's cafeteria to peer down at the factory floor. There, robots are put through a series of 24-hour tests and validations before being shipped to customers across the world. Students learned about the company, with an emphasis on their interests, like the fact that a KUKA robot is part of the Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios, Florida. 

Easily the most obvious appeal to a ninth-grader’s sensibility is the connection between working at KUKA and the students’ affinity for computers and video games.

“In a perfect world you’re working a job that you love and you’re passionate about,” Husby says.

“So if we can link these things together and they know that there are opportunities out there that are very similar to what they enjoy doing at home, if they like playing on computers and programming games at home, then this would be an amazing opportunity to consider.”

Over the course of the morning, students were split into three groups, rotating through stations that detailed the different phases of product design and manufacturing. One station detailed the training opportunities available, with training modules loaded with classic arcade games like "Space Invaders", while another station led students through the fabrication and machining department. 

The third station was the simulation group, where Robert Young demonstrated simulation engineering. It was a hit among the students—no coincidence, perhaps, because of its links to video games. But that’s okay. MFG Day is about reaching students at an early age, to get them to at least consider a job in the industry. It’s about shedding light on an industry that, in all likelihood, they would have never considered otherwise.

“You want to kind of tantalize them a little bit, get them thinking that this is pretty cool,” Young says.

Teacher Megan Berry believes students need the hands-on experience MFG Day provides.

Megan Berry agrees. Berry teaches the ninth-grade design class at UCSI and attended the event at KUKA this year. She says that while the students always appreciate getting out of the classroom, events like these spark a real curiosity for manufacturing.

“It really is nice to plant the seed,” Berry says. “And I think that’s why we were pushing to have the ninth-graders go. To have that exposure is so valuable.”

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.
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