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Foundry in a Box Sparks Interest in Manufacturing Jobs

When a young person says “I want to be a firefighter when I grow up,” there’s a clear visual image of that career. But when a young person is told “you could have a career as a quality engineer,” there’s no reference point. But Waupaca Foundry is working to change the image of tomorrow’s industrial careers.

According to the Manufacturing Institute, American manufacturing will need to fill 3.5 million skilled jobs over the next decade. The institutes’ 2015 Skills Gap Report shows that almost 2 million of these jobs will go unfilled because manufacturers cannot find qualified applicants.

At Waupaca Foundry, teams of employees are sparking interest in STEM careers with an innovative program.

In a plant setting, molten iron is poured into sand molds (about the size of a chest freezer) to make the parts found in cars, tractors, and even fire hydrants. At the schools, it all happens on a table top in a program called “Foundry in a Box.”

The team literally puts a mini-foundry in a metal box along with a small electric furnace that melts tin to about 500-degrees. Molds to hold the liquid tin are made from a mixture of sand and vegetable oil. The process is very similar to building a sand castle where sand is packed to create impressions in the mold.

Under the supervision of trained foundry men and women, students don safety equipment, manufacture the sand molds, help pour liquid tin into molds, and sand off rough edges to make a variety of objects including keys, paper weights and horseshoes. During the demonstration, Waupaca Foundry employees talk about their careers and educate the students on how the tasks they are doing relate to jobs in the foundry—jobs in engineering, machining, electrical work and metallurgy.

“It’s about educating students on what we do at Waupaca Foundry and making sure we have good workers in the future,” said Rusty Brandt, tooling and layout manager at Waupaca Foundry in Waupaca, Wisconsin.

Waupaca Foundry has been bringing this program to Wisconsin schools for several years and teams from each foundry have demonstrations planned through the 2016 school year. Each visit reaches anywhere from 20-300 students at a time.

Many of the schools have no formalized programs or clubs focused on STEM technology or jobs and this demonstration opens students’ minds to manufacturing careers. “Many tend to stereotype foundry work as the place for those who have chosen not to pursue higher education, while this program demonstrates just the opposite! It is the new foundry career!” said Amy Anaya from Iola-Scandinavia Elementary School in Wisconsin.

Waupaca Foundry’s “Foundry in a Box” earned the 2016 Manufacturing Innovation Award from the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance. The Alliance recognized manufacturers such as Kohler Company, Georgia Pacific, Vollrath and Waupaca Foundry for programs that show students how careers in engineering, production, quality, metallurgy, maintenance are exciting options for their future.

“There’s a science and an art to metalcasting and we want our youth to see the possibilities,” said Amie Borchardt, a lead process engineer at Waupaca Foundry.

Borchardt was honored by the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance as a 2016 All Star Mentor for her work in promoting STEM careers, specifically for women. She acknowledges there are still barriers to attracting more women to manufacturing, so girls need to know the career options available to them.

“We’ve got a really good team,” Borchardt said. “We’ve got a lot of up-and-comers who have taken opportunities to go to school and are replacing our retiring work force. To me, that’s exciting.”

Team members who champion Waupaca’s Foundry In a Box hold a variety of jobs at the company from foundry production employees to engineers and quality managers. For company leaders and employees, the demonstrations help ensure there is a next generation of foundry men and women.

Waupaca Foundry CEO Mike Nikolai began his career as a metallurgical engineer working at all three plants in Waupaca. He holds a masters degree from the University of Wisconsin—Madison and an M.B.A. from the University of Louisville which have taught him the value of STEMeducation.

“Our industry continues to change due to automation, robotics and continual innovation,” Nikolai said. “In the future, students who pursue STEM related careers will find entry level positions pay 25-30% higher compared to non-STEM jobs.”

Since the Foundry in a Box program started, Waupaca Foundry has reached 24 K-12 school districts across the U.S. and more than 2,000 students have been exposed to foundry processes. To request the Foundry In a Box program for your school or STEM event, please contact Waupaca Foundry’s manager of training and development.