Transfer Flow Trains the Trainers

As high school students drifted off to summer vacation in early June, six local industrial arts teachers spent a productive week expanding their own knowledge at Transfer Flow’s manufacturing plant in Chico.

The class was the brainchild of Transfer Flow founder, Bill Gaines, who says the company has been frustrated by its inability to find qualified employees locally. They have recruited in the Bay Area and beyond, just to fill skilled positions.

“If teachers don’t know the technology, how are they going to teach it?” observed Gaines. So he approached the high schools with an offer of free training to help teachers better understand what’s required of today’s manufacturing employee.

Six welding, fabrication, CAD, and robotics instructors from Paradise, Chico, Pleasant Valley, Las Plumas, and Durham high schools participated in the trial run. The four-day course covered a different piece of equipment each day: HAAS Vertical Machining Center, CNC Accurpress Press Brake, Cincinnati Laser Cutter, and a 2-station Welding Robot.

IMG_0231_600Transfer Flow’s Todd LaPant describes Cincinnati Laser to industrial arts teachers.

Transfer Flow uses these tools to produce aftermarket gas tanks, fuel system components and propane conversion kits for vehicles.

While the course followed a formal curriculum, including daily pretesting and post-testing, the ultimate goal is for each participant to engage their high school students in a project incorporating the tools. Transfer Flow would open its doors to the students, allowing groups to take a product from design to actual production of a prototype.

“The reality is we do not have the capacity to do this on campus,” said participant Matt Joiner, an ROP instructor at Pleasant Valley High School. “Education is always 20 years behind. When industry moves, education is behind.”

His sentiments were echoed by Kevin Payne of Chico High School. “If we’re teaching antiquated technology we’re not doing the students any favors. Obviously, we can’t afford equipment like this, but we can develop curriculum to make students more prepared. We’ll develop a project using this CNC press brake and the other CNC equipment.”

What the teachers lack in equipment, they make up for in enthusiasm. Their questions about dross, air purity, heat generated warping, and other technical details demonstrated a high level of background knowledge.

One highlight was a demonstration of the Cincinnati Laser Cutting System. Transfer Flow’s director of engineering, Todd LaPant, said lasers are becoming critical in shops, with three or four in use around Chico. Transfer Flow’s laser replaced two machines and reduced the time it takes to cut a Transit Connect tank from 17 minutes to less than four.

Lee Clark of Paradise High said, “I’ve seen this on YouTube, but to come down here and see what they are actually doing — this is an incredible opportunity.”

Rather than presenting step-by-step tutorials to operating the equipment; the class concentrated on the processes involved in manufacturing a product with these tools.

For example, a successful employee needs to know both welding and programming. Most of Transfer Flow’s equipment is operated by computer controls. Jobs are bar coded and matched up with corresponding bar-coded jigs. One operator can be welding two entirely different parts simultaneously with the 2-station welding robot, thanks to these controls.

Gaines said G-code and M-code, the numerical control programming language used to manage automated tasks, is something teachers know nothing about. “Even the Community Colleges don’t teach this.”

There is also a relationship between CAD and welding. Instructors in these fields must collaborate, just as operators do in industrial settings.

Using AutoCAD Inventor, Transfer Flow engineer, LaPant, elicited a “wow” from the audience when he demonstrated how he references all parts back to the shell, so one small change doesn’t throw off all related parts. Every slot and notch is designed into the CAD program to eliminate human guesswork on the production line.

Teamwork was another concept emphasized in the class. In an environment that uses preprogrammed robots to weld along a set path, repeatability is crucial, said LaPant. Operators can’t hotdog it and make changes on the fly.

Paradise High’s Clark said, “The model I see here is more cost analysis, more teamwork. I grew up in industry where you trained a little bit and if they didn’t like you they fired you.”

Gaines is passionate about the need for better preparation of this segment of the workforce. “This is where the middle class is. These are the guys that are going to buy the homes and spend money. Why not train our local kids for local jobs?”

Wes Bill, of Durham High, is planning to take advantage of Transfer Flow’s generous offer. “It opens up a lot of doors, the fact that they’ll be a resource for us. I’m hoping to get release time to have students come out in groups of four or five and spend the day.”

IMG_0132_600Operators use control pendants to manage equipment at Transfer Flow, making computer skills as important as production skills.