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How APT Manufacturing Solutions created its own talent pipeline

May 8, 2019
Interview with Anthony Nighswander, president, APT Manufacturing Solutions

Christine LaFave Grace interviews Anthony Nighswander, president of APT Manufacturing Solutions about APT’s training program for area high school students, which helps bring new talent into the company.


Amanda Del Buono: Welcome back to Manufacturing Tomorrow’s Workforce. I’m your host Amanda Del Buono, here to introduce this pod’s interview. Today we have Christine LaFave Grace back again interviewing Anthony Nighswander, president of APT Manufacturing Solutions. In the interview, Christine and Anthony discuss APT’s training program for area high school students. Stay tuned to learn how he got the program started and the benefits it’s brought to his company. With no further adieu, here’s the interview.

Christine LaFave Grace: Sometimes, if you want something done--if you want to see change happen--you've got to do it, or at least start on it, yourself. That's the position that Anthony Nighswander, president of APT Manufacturing Solutions in Hicksville, Ohio, found himself in a few years ago. Like a lot of leaders of small to midsize manufacturing companies across the country, Anthony was frustrated: Business was good, but he was struggling find local workers with the skills his company needed. APT specializes in designing and building automation systems to help other manufacturers run their production lines and warehouses more efficiently, but Anthony couldn't find the humans he needed to help build the robots. The young people coming out of area high schools and colleges didn't have the engineering and machining proficiencies that APT depends upon. So Tony decided that APT would take the lead on building the talent pipeline that it needed. In 2015, APT opened a 75,000-square-foot training center inside its manufacturing facility, designed specifically for training high school students on manufacturing and engineering basics and robotic programming. Students who participate in APT's program attend high school in the morning and head over to APT in the afternoon. There, they learn how to build a robotic packaging cell for a hypothetical APT customer.

At the end of the program, top-performing students are offered an apprenticeship with APT, while the company pays for them to take classes at Northwest State Community College.

It's a multipronged effort that took a lot of effort and a lot of partnering, but Anthony is seeing it pay off. Anthony, thanks very much for being here today.

AS: You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

CLG: Now, to start off, I was hoping you could take me through the program’s development in a little more detail. It seems like more and more manufacturing company leaders across the country are reaching that point of deciding that they need to engage in workforce development differently. So, how did you decide that this was the direction that you wanted to go in for APT, with an in-house training center and an apprenticeship program?

AS: Well, it kind of slipped off the end of my tongue, I guess. And one of the things that we were doing was we were going through a growth period and in 2012, I was in about forty-some thousand square feet and we added onto our building in 2013, we actually added on in 2013, 2015 and 2017. But it was in 2014 that we were looking for our 2015 addition, and we had gotten together with the mayor and the Defiance County economic development, and Jerry Hayes, in charge of the CIC, and I was a little bit frustrated. So, Hicksville, Ohio, is in northwest Ohio, we’re 20 minutes from Fort Wayne, Indiana, but we’re really a farm community. I had tried working with our local career centers; they didn’t have robotic classes in it, they didn’t have good machining classes in it. I was trying to work with our community college. And so, I was trying to build excitement, and the problem is it wasn’t going to happen as quick as I needed it to happen, and I really, I was kind of under the gun as far as in survival mode with our growth. So, I mentioned in a meeting, I said: “You know, I’m frustrated. I don’t want a second location, but I’m frustrated. I’m thinking about just starting my own high school training program.” When I said that, Jerry Hayes’ eyes lit up and the mayor’s eyes lit up, and they said, “We’ve been talking about this.We’ll support you on it.” And so, that was the beginning, And when you go home that night and you sit back and think about the day, you’re thinking “What did I just do?” Anyways, it really worked out fine. But that was the beginning of it was in 2014 we started planning it, and in 2015/16 school year, so the fall of 2015, that’s really when we started our high school program. And so, that was the launch of it, and it was just something that slipped off the end of my tongue.

CLG: That’s great. Now, what resources did you turn to in building up the infrastructure for this kind of workforce development program? There’s a lot that goes into this. Who or what helped you along the way?

AS: So, it really, the way we wanted to lay it out is APT is made up of a full machine shop, full CNC shop, welding and fab, automation. We’ve got mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and we needed people in all areas. So, what we decided to do is we wanted to lay it out the same way we would build a machine. And when a customer comes to us with an idea or a need, they don’t know how to build a machine, all they know is their need. So, for example, we pack out sweet and sour cups that you dip your chicken in, and the customer never told us how to build the machine, all they did was gave us a sweet and sour cup and said, “We need 720 of these a minute.” So, it’s our job to do that.

So, what we decided to begin with was we wanted to lay our program out the same way that our company flows, and so, we did that by saying the first thing we wanted to do was teach the kids or the students how to become a visionary engineer. So many times, people think an engineer is somebody that draws things on paper or on a computer and that’s true, but really engineering starts in the mind, it doesn’t start on paper. And so, when we did that, we bring the students in and the first thing we do, actually, is we teach them our language. So, we said okay, we’re going to have students come in here that really don’t know what a mic is or a caliper is, or a 1-2-3 block is, and we don’t want them to be embarrassed. That’s like your dad asking you to grab the crescent wrench and you don’t know what it is and you go to the toolbox and his toolbox looks huge because you’re looking at all these tools and you don’t want to be embarrassed, so you grab something. So, the first three weeks we teach them what is a tenth, in other words your math class teaches you what a tenth is, but in the math. Well, a tenth of a thousandth is what we refer to, so we teach them, what’s a tenth, what’s a 1-2-3 block, what’s a gauge, what’s a bridgeport mill, what’s a lathe, all of this equipment. And so, all of our classes are broken up into three-week segments, and so, every three to four weeks, they switch and do something different.

And one of my wife and I’s goals to begin with was yeah, we want to grow our company and we want to teach these kids, but we also have a goal that if we taught a young high school student what he didn’t like, then we also won because they didn’t have to spend the money in college.

So, the first thing they do is go through what we call the tools of the trade and they go through our language. The second thing they do is visionary engineering, and we ask the students what’s a conveyor, and they say “I don’t know what a conveyor is,” and I say, “Yeah, you know what a conveyor is, you put your groceries on a conveyor every time and it moves the product to the lady who’s going to check it out.” And I say, “Do you know what a sensor is?” “Well no, we don’t know what a sensor is.” “Yeah, because the food you put on the conveyor stopped when it hit a sensor.” And so, we talk logically and we start to build their minds on what it is, and because we’re in a farm community, sometimes we’ll say “What is a conveyor?” and they say, “We know what a conveyor is, it conveys the straw and the hay up to the hay mound,” and you’re exactly right, that’s a conveyor as well. So, in the automation world, we always think about how is the product coming in, how’s the product going out, and what are we doing with it? And those are the three key elements of robotics, it really is, I mean there’s obviously more involved.

So then, they engineer things. They start building a machine in their mind, and then we come up with a bill of materials of purchased items, what can we buy and what do we have to make, and then they actually have to draw up what they have to make. But in their first year, they’re not allowed to use the computer. We feel to design in a computer is really an aid, because we feel still that designing comes from the brain and it comes from being visionaries. So, we teach them how to draw on paper, and if they can sketch it on paper, and 3-D sketch it on paper, now it’s instilled in their heads.

So, they do the engineering, and then they go on the floor and they build their parts, they machine their parts. And whenever they go on the floor, they’re surrounded by usually five to 10 mentors in those departments. So, our tool-makers and machinists just really get excited when the kids come out, and they’re working with them for three weeks and they’re teaching them really artwork and I often say today, we have about 130 employees and 100 artists, because they’re just truly artists in what they make. So, they go through machining and they machine their parts, but as they’re machining their parts, they’re also machining customers’ parts, because the tool-makers say, “Well, here, help me with my product, or help me with my part,” and so, they make parts. They touch a little bit on the CNC machines. The CNC machine is a computer numerical piece of equipment, it’s a computer numerical controller, actually, but it’s still a mill or it’s still a lathe, and until you understand a basic mill and lathe, there’s really no reason to let the computer run it, because we want to teach them how to manually run it first.

Then, they go into the welding department and they weld their parts together that they’re going to make, and they work with our welders for three to four weeks, then they go to the automation floor, and they assemble their parts, and while they’re there, they’re assembling parts for our customers as well. So, they’re working every afternoon from 1 o’clock to 3 o’clock, they’re on our floor, between the work that they do in the classroom and on the floor, but there’s a combination to it. And so, the way we set our program up is the first half of the year is all the mechanical side, and the second half of the year is the electrical side. So, on the electrical side they learn what’s 24 volts, what’s 110 volts. Well, that’s what you plug your phone into or into the wall. And what’s 240, what’s 280, and what’s single-phase and three-phase. So, we teach them all these things. Just basic electricity. And then, they go through panel building and they learn how to wire a panel and they learn to understand what’s field device wiring and what does that mean and what is a camera when you’re mounting a camera, and then, what is a robot, and they learn how to program a robot. And we’re a Fanuc robot integrator. Out of about, I don’t know, 400 integrators in the United States, we’re in the Top 20 for Fanuc Robotics, and so, that’s kind of neat. We do a lot of robots. So, they learn to program robots, they learn to program PLCs, and they learn to program HMIs. At the end of the year, they’re really not a master of any of it. Really, what we’re trying to do is find out what they’re good at and what their skill is, and then in life, we can help nurture that skill. 

For more, tune into the Manufacturing Tomorrow’s Workforce podcast.

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