by Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
To the untrained eye, the student is simply standing in the corner of his classroom wearing a welding mask.
Inside that mask, however, Conner Whitley, of Redfield, a first-year student in Mitchell Technical Institute’s new welding and advanced manufacturing technology program, is “welding” in a virtual world he views through a special headset built into his mask. With a few adjustments, he has his choice of welding on a military base in a desert environment, in a car shop, or on a skyscraper job site.
The high-tech simulator doesn’t replace hands-on welding, says instructor Travis Peterson, but it’s a compelling and attractive introduction to various welding processes that meets students where they live.
“For someone who has never welded before, it’s a great tool, but when you get out there with sparks landing on your shoulders, it’s a whole different world,” Peterson said.
The simulator makes learning the basics fun, and students regularly hold informal competitions to determine who can produce the best virtual weld.
Simulators, robotics, lasers and computer programming hold no terrors for students weaned on computers and video games, Peterson said.
“This is fun to them, and they’re getting better at it than I am,” he said.
While the two-year program covers all forms of gas and electric arc welding, this program is about far more than just welding.
The real “fun” stuff, Peterson said, will come in the program’s second year, when students delve into robotics, laser-cutting equipment and the programming of lathe and milling equipment capable of fabricating any machine part.
MTI’s welding program was launched this fall with the help of a $600,000 grant from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
Facilities at MTI’s north, or Capital Street, campus, had lain dormant since the 1996 shutdown of MTI’s original welding program. The new program is temporarily at the north campus until moving to the south campus next fall.
Julie Brookbank, MTI vice president for marketing, said welding was one of MTI’s first programs when the school opened in 1968. The program slowed in the mid-1990s as student numbers dwindled. It was discontinued in 1996 as part of statewide cuts during the Janklow administration.
“At the time, there was not a great demand for trained welders,” said Brookbank. Many companies decided they could provide the training on-the-job in a short amount of time. Prior to the program’s demise, it had been reduced to a six-month diploma program.
Students can still leave the program early if they wish, but Peterson believes that’s unlikely because they know the real meat of the program will be in its second year. Yet the program will offer students the option of leaving with a one-year diploma, or sticking with the program and earning a two-year, AAS (associate in applied science) degree.
All of Peterson’s first year students have committed to coming back next year and he hopes to sign a minimum of 24 new first-year students next year.
“We don’t want to turn down anyone. There’s such a demand for our students,” he said.
Peterson, who has 23 years of welding experience, graduated from MTI in 1991. He was one of the last students to graduate from the original program.
He is also excited that MTI will soon become an accredited testing facility. Peterson already holds hold American Welding Society certifications as a welding educator and welding inspector.
The demand for advanced welding and manufacturing skills is stronger than ever, with Trail King Industries and Twin City Fan being two supportive local employers.
Some students, with the help of Pell grants and other programs, will complete their first year at little to no cost.
Several received $1,000 Critical Needs grants from the state, and more than half Peterson’s students participated in the Workforce Recruitment Program.
Under that program, students get $2,000 each year toward tuition if they commit to working for two years for a local employer after graduation.
Trail King, Twin City Fan and Horizontal Machining Inc., of Huron, are all participants in the recruitment program.
The program has been beneficial to MTI, his students and the companies involved, said Peterson, who added, “We feed each other.”
Students get more than core curriculum classes and hands-on experience as part of their education. They also receive a firsthand education in the economics of production and how using manufacturing best practices can save a company thousands of dollars a year.
Because of a late first-year start-up, the MTI program began with just 10 students. At the minimum, Peterson hopes to double that first-year number next year.
Student ages range from 17 to 58, which makes for some interesting class dynamics.
“When you put a 17 year-old and a 58-year-old together, you get some definite opinions on how things should be done,” Peterson said.
MTI’s new program caught the eye of Chase Rovere, who was welding cattle pens in western South Dakota when he heard of the revamped welding program.
“The job wasn’t going anywhere,” he said, “and then a buddy told me about MTI. I met with the instructor and he seemed like he knew what he was talking about.” The comment brought a chuckle from Peterson.
Rovere said the companies he’s spoken with don’t just want a guy who can stick two pieces of metal together — they want someone who knows how to program and operate complex computerized manufacturing equipment.
The state GOED grant enabled Peterson to pack his classroom with state-of-the-art equipment, including a dozen Haas control simulation modules. The modules are a combination simulator-controller that allows students to write and test operating programs prior to using them on actual CNC (computer numerically controlled) lathes and milling machines.
The MTI program will move to its new south campus location next year. The current welding facilities will then be used by the welding program in the new Mitchell Area Career and Technical Education Academy. The academy program will give students advanced standing if they decide to transition to the MTI welding program.