This manufacturer brought sizzle to a massive Big E trade show; students were impressed

WEST SPRINGFIELD — Amid many, this machine proved an attention-grabber.

The plasma-cutting machine on display at the Eastec trade show can shear metal underwater at a temperature of 50,000 degrees, making two-dimensional machine parts and art designs. The cutting apparatus lights up, steams and sizzles in its cooling water bath.

That didn’t fail to impress 17 high school seniors from the John J. Duggan Academy in Springfield, who toured the show at the Big E Tuesday morning.

People in manufacturing hope students like these remain interested.

“We are going to have a problem in this country if we don’t have enough workers,” said Kristofer Klein, national service manager for Linde Gas & Equipment of Illinois, maker of the cutter. “I know I wouldn’t be where I am if I didn’t have mentors. So I make time to talk with young people and let them know what modern manufacturing is like.”

The plasma cutter is a good sales tool, Klein said, since most Linde products mainly consist of industrial gasses.

More than 10,000 people are expected to attend the show through Thursday, stopping by nearly 600 exhibitors with 150 new products. The trade show is one of the bigger events the Big E hosts besides the annual fair — big enough that organizer SME brings a portable air conditioning system with temporary plastic ducts to keep visitors cool in the Mallary Complex, Stroh Building, Young Building and Better Living Center.

This Eastec show could be the biggest in the event’s 35-year-history, said Robert Willig, executive director and CEO of SME, a trade group that used to be known as the Society of Manufacturing Engineers.

And while most of those swarming 150,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor exhibit space have the budgets to buy $250,000 machine tools and the latest robot arm, 200 of them are high school students from across Massachusetts.

One hundred were expected Tuesday and another 100 Wednesday as part of event organizer SME’s Bright Minds Student Summit.

Emily Arris, a senior in the manufacturing program at Chicopee Comprehensive High School, not only attended Tuesday, but is a recipient of SME’s scholarship program. The group gives $1 million a year across the country.

She plans to continue her manufacturing and engineering education next year at Springfield Technical Community College.

Emily Arris, a senior at Chicopee Comprehensive High School and a scholarship winner, talks about her experience at EASTEC, the largest Northeast manufacturing trade show, held at the Eastern State Expositions in West Springfield on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. (Hoang ‘Leon’ Nguyen / The Republican)

“I always enjoyed taking things apart to see how they were made,” she said. “When we toured and tried out all the different shops at Comp, I was just drawn to manufacturing.”

Her teacher, Juan Dominicci, said a trip to Eastec is a great opportunity for students to network with industry professionals and get a chance to see a variety of tools, including new technologies.

“Not everyone will run a CNC machine or a lathe,” he said, referring to computerized numerical control devices. “There is so much to explore.”

SME predicts that by 2030, more than 2 million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled and that more than 91% of manufacturers will have trouble finding skilled workers.

“Too many people are still under outdated thinking,” said Rob Luce, vice president of the SME Educational Foundation. “We need to let people know that manufacturing isn’t this dirty, repetitive dying industry. It’s growing — and its high technology.”

SME runs a program that builds, from the ground up, manufacturing laboratories in participating high schools.

The students compete while at Eastec, downloading an app on their phones which guides them to pre-selected trade show booths where the students are asked questions. Get enough right and every member of a five-teen team takes home a 3D printer.

Tuesday saw plenty of people wandering exhibits looking to spend money on new technology. There were cutters and machine tools, industrial vacuums, scopes and optics.

Robots stacked blocks and threw objects to demonstrate their dexterity.

L.S. Starrett Co. of Athol, a manufacturer of tools including saw blades, and measuring devices like micrometers and calipers, showed off a new machine for testing the strength and, well, springiness, of springs.

Eric Perkins, a technology manager in the company’s force and material test department, explained how the machine is lubricated so the spring can twist as it’s tested. The machine is useful to manufacturers of everything from firearms to automobiles to click-top ballpoint pens.

“Springs,” he said. “The most complicated simple thing you’ve ever seen.”

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