Knowledge-based shoe manufacturing in the USA

Who would have thought that a shoe factory is an academic think tank for USA-based manufacturing? This is precisely what our OESH factory has become. The buzz words are “knowledge-based manufacturing” which have been identified by experts as the key to getting manufacturing back into America.

Along those lines, this year we’re fortunate to have not two or three, but SEVEN groups of undergraduate engineering students from the University of Virginia (UVa) working on various OESH projects this year. (This has grown from two groups last year).

I’ve already had my first few meetings with each of the groups in the factory. That’s part of the deal. The students come to me rather than my going to their classrooms so that we can get right down to the practical…which is what it’s all about. I do end up lecturing but it’s always tempered by the sound of the chiller or air compressor turning on. (Perhaps next year one of the projects will be to make the air compressor less noisy.) They get enough theory in the course of their four years of undergraduate work. As professor Brad Bennett, my colleague who supervises them, says, this is perhaps their only opportunity to actually do something. And they all seem pretty excited about that. (Apparently a few of last year’s students told this new batch that this was their favorite class.)

Their enthusiasm is contagious and assures me that indeed, the world will be a better place tomorrow. One of the groups’ projects is to reduce the humidity to 23% in just a portion of the factory that surrounds Mickey, our filament-winding machine

filament winder

that spins the carbon fiber into the cantilevers. This might seem like an easy task but involves learning all about how humidity travels, permeable and non-permeable building membranes, the effect of HVAC and where to find a hygrometer. This group is all over it and now sign their emails to me ‘The Dry Guys.” At the same time, another group is designing and making a feedback controlled switch so as to automate the resin flow through Mickey. (I like to tell them of the old days when I used to use popcorn buckets to mix the resin and manually pour it into the resin bath.)

Another group is working on getting our new injection molding machine a.k.a. “Crispin” up and running. This involves pulling it out of retirement (it was last used to make some automobile-associated-widget in Detroit). Even if you know nothing about injection molding (which I didn’t until the beginning of this year), when you see Crispin, you can’t help but say “Gee, they sure don’t make them like they used to.”

injection molding machine

Indeed, most injection molding machines are now made in Asia. Ours is one solid (American-made from Newbury, Ohio–just outside of Cleveland) piece of machinery–a couple tons at least judging by the dent it made in the concrete floor–that needs just a little TLC and possibly an “app” to run it.

Another group is working on making the molds that will be used with Crispin to make the rubbery sole parts. I promised them that I would have ready by our second meeting, the 3-D CAD file of our shoe sole (size 9 and a half – my size), completed for them. It has only taken me about six months to get this ready and even then, I found myself up late the night before, trying to get all the surfaces to properly close to create a “watertight polysurface.” First, I had to learn CAD (computer-aided design) which I did with the help of OESH employee, Michael Warwick, brilliant former architecture-turned pre-med student. Since Michael is now knee-deep in another “knowledge-based” program (his pre-medical baccalaureate program at UVa), it’s just been me extruding surfaces and filleting edges. When I handed the file to the group, I apologized that I wasn’t able to get those last couple “naked edges” to close. “No problem,” they told me. Not only will they close those edges, they’ll model where the parting lines, ejector pins, venting and cooling lines all go in the mold. They left the second meeting with the CAD file (on their monkey head-adorned thumb drive) as well as my two favorite books on injection molding that I still have on loan from the university.

The experts call it “knowledge-based” manufacturing. I call it lots of applied brainpower and lots of fun.

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