Robotics, virtual reality highlight manufacturing day for students

Robots, items printed in three dimensions, lasers and virtual realities filled the halls Friday of ECPI University’s Virginia Beach campus on Greenwich Road for a manufacturing expo that targeted high school students.

More than 400 students attended the event, which gave a hands-on look at jobs in the industry.

A student uses an Oculus virtual reality headset at the ECPI manufacturing expo. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)
A student uses an Oculus virtual reality headset at the ECPI manufacturing expo. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)

The students saw how to use a scanner to capture the texture of an object before printing it through a 3-D printer. They saw how to direct robots to lift and throw water bottles into a bin. They entered virtual reality and learned how it was created.

The action impressed even students who didn’t plan to pursue the field. Kennedy Wilson, a junior at Kempsville High School, wants to be a pediatrician, but she noted that machines are everywhere and she enjoyed learning how they operated.

“I liked how in the one room you could shoot, and then in the other room you could ride a bike,” she said. “It was really interactive.”

Oresenters and instructors tried sell students on a career in manufacturing. Ryan Johnson, vice president of operations at Lindab, a company that primarily manufactures ventilation equipment, called the field one of the fastest growing job sectors in the country.

An estimated 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will be made available in the next 10 years, due to an expansion in the field and retirement, according to a recent study from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute.

The industry faces two main challenges, according to Johnson and Glenn Marshall of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence: lack of skilled workers and a negative perception of the industry by young people.

“We have a critical shortage of the talent to do so,” Marshall said, calling it a 21st century skills gap.

Presenters at the expo preached hands-on learning and the chance to use the latest technology.

“It doesn’t matter how much theory you know if you can’t do it,” Edwin Miller, an instructor from the Advanced Technology Institute, told a group of students. “You have to be able to do it.”

Gerry Wright, an instructor and associate dean at ECPI, has been using technological advances to get his students jobs in the digital side of manufacturing.

“I run a club where we’ve come up with two teams — beginner and advanced — in game development,” he said, pointing across the room. “This is the newest interface we’ve come up with.”

The new interface allowed students to enter a virtual world by wearing Oculus headsets and play with a virtual ball. Others watched on a screen what their classmates were seeing.

“It’s like a 3-D movie,” Wright said.

The experiences captured the attention of many of the students, but not all were ready to jump into a manufacturing career.

Jay Lavina, a senior at Green Run High School, said he plans to attend college, earn a master’s degree and enter the Navy. Still, he said, the expo impressed him.

“I’ve seen a lot good opportunities for a lot of us students, using applied technology that’s out in the world right now,” he said.

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