Manufacturing venture helps teach hands-on skills

Last fall, Seymour High School launched a student-led manufacturing venture to encourage innovation, entrepreneurship, job experience and responsibility all while providing a real world work environment.

With a core group of students and some small-scale equipment, Owl Manufacturing created, produced and sold items such as Christmas ornaments and vinyl decals mainly to teachers, administrators and other students.

But it was only the beginning.

Just one year later, Owl Manufacturing is soaring to levels no one dreamed possible, including completing its first international order and working with Seymour Main Street to open up a store in downtown Seymour.

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“We just shipped an order, 500 stickers that we had to print and package, to Canada for a Google educator summit,” said teacher Jeremy Wischmeier. “If you would have told me three years ago I would be part of a business inside the school shipping to Canada, I would have told you, ‘No, it ain’t happening.'”

There are 17 students in Owl Manufacturing with 11 new and six returning. The program is open to sophomores through seniors and is a year-long commitment. Students must have completed the school’s two-semester introduction to manufacturing course before being “hired.”

Sophomore Alejandro Mejia said he learned a lot in his introduction course and wanted to continue to expand his knowledge and skills in manufacturing.

“I wanted to see what it was all about, and I liked it, so I decided to move up,” he said. “So far, we’ve done quite a few things.”

Mejia said he gets a lot of satisfaction out of working with his classmates and finishing a project.

“It can be a lot of work, but it’s always great to finish something, and you have to learn how to interact better with people,” he said.

Over the summer, the business expanded its capabilities by adding new equipment, including a Haas CNC Mill, a large format vinyl printer and cutter for banners, a laser printer/engraver and a second larger three-dimensional printer. The equipment was purchased with grant money from the EcO Manufacturing Network and school funds, Wischmeier said.

“They (the students) were researching this equipment last year, figuring out what they wanted to do and what they needed to do it,” he said.

All of the new equipment is in addition to the school’s existing Amatrol robotics lab, computer-aided design software and other advanced manufacturing equipment.

With the need for more space to house the state-of-the-art technology, the program took over a former medical terminology classroom, resulting in what has become the central hub for Owl Manufacturing, where the students meet to plan the workday, discuss potential projects and gauge progress on how an order is coming along.

The class also expanded its Creform assembly area, where students work to construct white display boards for one of their industrial customers, Aisin USA Manufacturing in Seymour.

“The students decided we needed more square footage for that area,” Wischmeier said.

Aisin and other local businesses have supported the program from the very beginning by sending guest speakers, ordering products and providing guidance and mentors to the students, Wischmeier said.

“That’s a very important part of this whole program, getting the students connected with adults in the manufacturing field and giving them the confidence to talk to them in a professional way, whether it’s pitching them an idea or working up a contract with them,” he said. “They don’t have that fear of who somebody is. We have presidents of several of the major companies and plant managers coming in.”

The students also have had conversations about the program and its future needs with Superintendent Rob Hooker and other school administrators who support Owl Manufacturing and want to see it succeed.

Moving from office manager last year to president, junior Dylan Rigdon serves as a leader for the company. He is proud of the work Owl Manufacturing is doing.

“From what we were last year, we have grown so much,” Rigdon said. “It’s actually really cool to see and be a part of it.”

He plans to go to college to study manufacturing engineering and eventually wants to run his own business. Owl Manufacturing is giving him a glimpse of what that will be like.

“I’m learning a lot of leadership skills,” he said. “It’s definitely a lot more paperwork and financial skills, trying to learn how to actually run the company.”

Rigdon said at first, he was concerned he wouldn’t be able to handle the role of president.

“But things are going surprisingly well,” he said.

The class meets daily from 2 to 3:30 p.m., but Rigdon said he and other workers are so committed to the job they come in before and after school and during their lunch period.

“This is a business, and there are customers relying on us, so we have to get the job done and do it right,” he said.

Another change this year is the addition of former Seymour Middle School technology teacher Curt Schleibaum as a full-time teacher at the high school. He helped out part time with Owl Manufacturing last year and filled a vacancy left by former teacher Bob Sexton, who resigned at the end of last year.

Rounding out the Owl Manufacturing teachers is Ryan Money, who leads the introductory manufacturing classes.

“We are simply here as a buffer between the students and the customers, to direct them to the right student for what they are wanting,” Wischmeier said. “The students do the research on materials, estimate the cost and quote the project.”

Right now, students are extra busy preparing for their first open house from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday. The public is invited to tour the Owl Manufacturing lab, talk to students about their work and see some of the final products on display that night.

During the day, the students will host a VIP event for local business, industry and community leaders, giving them the opportunity to see what Owl Manufacturing is all about.

On Nov. 4 and Dec. 2, from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., Owl Manufacturing will set up a store at the Seymour Community Center during the Seymour Main Street Downtown Shop Around events. More dates are being planned for 2018.

Some of their custom-made Seymour icon items that will be for sale include three-dimensional printed Sammy the Owl figures, replica models of the Blish Mill silos, the visitor center train depot, the Seymour High School clock tower and even the Community Drive railroad underpass that comes with a set of letter and number decals so you can decorate it.

The students also have made banners for local organizations and politicians, which have been in high demand, engraved Seymour glasses and mugs, keychain fobs, identification badges for school employees and fidget spinners, and they have other projects in the works.

“The students wanted to manufacture things that are unique to Seymour and that you can’t go to Walmart and buy,” Wischmeier said.

Everything from design to production, marketing, selling, packaging and shipping and invoicing is done by the students, he said.

“The students are involved with the whole process, and it’s just growing exponentially,” Wischmeier said.

All of the money made through customer orders is put back into the program to keep equipment and software up to date and to purchase needed materials for projects.

Through Owl Manufacturing, Seymour is bringing back skilled trades and vocational training to help equip students with the knowledge and experiences they need to fill existing local jobs that are in high demand.

“As a society, we realized that we need these jobs and the people who can do them,” Wischmeier said. “And now our students are realizing that, too.”

For Rigdon, the best part of Owl Manufacturing is the friendships he has made with his coworkers.

“The teamwork that we have is tremendous,” he said. “I didn’t really know any of these guys when we started, but now, we’re all friends.”

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Owl Manufacturing open house

Where: Seymour High School, 1350 W. Second St. Parking is available in the faculty parking lot off of West Second Street. Enter through the double doors labeled Owl Manufacturing.

When: 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday

Owl Manufacturing store

Where: Seymour Community Center, 107 S. Chestnut St.

When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nov. 4 and Dec. 2 during Seymour Main Street’s Downtown Shop Around events