STIHL Re-Tools the Concept of Summer Camp

A couple weeks back I wrote a piece on a series of manufacturing “camps” across the country designed to teach kids the value and the joy of making things.  In my research for that piece, I learned that one company in particular — STIHL, the global power tool giant — had taken the whole concept of a manufacturing summer camp to an entirely new level.

This past July, STIHL conducted a three-day camp for 30 some-odd high school sophomores and juniors in and around Virginia Beach, which serves as the company’s base of operations in the U.S.  And while they called their event a “camp,” what STIHL actually staged was a well-orchestrated manufacturing competition between five teams of carefully pre-selected kids.

Kind of like a science fair on steroids.

From what I understand, here’s the skinny on what STIHL is calling its First Annual Manufacturing Technology Summer Camp:

  • The “camp” attendees were divided into five teams, with each simulating a manufacturing division of a small American clock maker.
  • The five teams, each led by a volunteer coach and a team assistant, spent three and a half days preparing for and working in a manufacturing competition. Each group spent the first day building their team and constructing, programming, and testing a 3-axis CNC engraving mill.
  • On the second day, team members learned a number of manufacturing operations from drilling to tapping to painting to assembly. They were also given materials to construct prototypes of three different clocks.
  • Production requirements were given to the teams on the third day, as well as a schedule for shared resources, such as a drill press and a paint booth. Teams needed to create a balanced production plan for the two hour competition on the following day.
  • The two-hour manufacturing competition started with raw materials for 20 clocks on each team and ended with three teams completing the production requirement and one team being judged the winner.
  • Each team was evaluated based on production efficiency, inventory management, quality standards and innovative thinking.
  • Students from the winning team received scholarship money for an academic degree or industry certification through the Virginia Manufacturing Association’s educational foundation.

That last performance metric — the innovative thinking part — ended up being my favorite wrinkle in the competition.

Let me explain.

On Day Four, just as the teams were preparing to roll up their sleeves to start turning out clocks, they learned that all the machinery on the shop floor had been reset overnight.  The kids were informed by camp director Simon Nance, who in is day job serves as manager of training and development for STIHL, that OSHA had come in overnight and reset each and every machine in the place.  Apparently, they had not been operating up to federal standards during the kids’ training and prototyping lessons.

And — just like things happen in real life — suddenly the five teams found themselves with a glitch, perhaps even a major glitch.  And, as is usually the case in real life, the issue wasn’t so much be the glitch that determined the kids’ success or failure, as it was how they rolled with the punches, dealt with the unexpected, and adjusted on the fly.

Don’t worry, the kids did fine.  As did their host.  In fact, to say STIHL’s first-ever manufacturing camp was a home run would be a gross understatement.  The camp did everything STIHL had hoped, and then some.

If not more.

It got some terrific publicity.  It scored some major political points.  It even built a handful of new bridges while strengthening a number of existing ones (a total of 16 trade associations, trade schools, professional organizations and vendors participated in some way shape or form, not to mention the teachers and STIHL employees who served as volunteers).

In addition, the camp planted some seeds that might yet bear fruit down the road, as it introduced a group of talented young, would-be engineers to an innovative and progressive-thinking local technology-driven employer.

And vice versa.

But perhaps more than anything else, STIHL’s refreshingly new and imaginative take on summer camp made a deep (and hopefully, lasting) impression on two of the most important groups to the future of manufacturing in this country;  parents and — in particular — teachers.

As Nance told a colleague of mine, he was blown away by how many parents came up to him on the final day of camp and said, in effect, “I had no idea that this was what manufacturing is all about.”

But the most critical audience for STIHL’s message of this “new day in American manufacturing” was not so much the press, the politicians, the parents, or even the kids themselves.

It was the teachers.

That’s why STIHL worked hand-in-glove for over a year with educators, and why the company staged a dry-run “sample” camp in the summer of 2010, giving teachers and school administrators the chance to experience what their kids would be experiencing the following summer.

And that’s why STIHL spent so much time researching, targeting and working with key local teachers prior the initiative, and why going forward they’ll attempt to extend their reach within the community of professionals whose job it is to shape the career paths and aspirations of so many young Americans.

As Nance said, “Today, I’m assuming teachers are telling kids, ‘You want to become a doctor or a lawyer.’  We want them to be saying the same thing about a career in manufacturing.”

“There’s no question,” he added, in response to a question on how to get the best and brightest kids thinking about a life in manufacturing, “teachers are the key.”

4 Comments to “STIHL Re-Tools the Concept of Summer Camp”

  1. Kyle Thill 27 September 2011 at 4:45 am #

    It is so good to hear any effort that excites young individuals about this sector. So dearly want us to be competitive not only in value but in brain power.

    • Perry Sainati 29 September 2011 at 8:20 am #

      Amen to that, Kyle. And thanks for the comment. Hope you’ll share the post with others.

  2. Chopper Doctor 27 September 2011 at 6:39 am #

    Wow, awesome example. I’m going to pass this along to our local school districts Project Lead The Way representative.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Perry Sainati 29 September 2011 at 8:25 am #

      I’m glad you’re as excited about this story as I was. Kudos to STIHL for doing such a thorough job on such an imaginative way of getting kids excited about industry. Hope your Project Lead the Way person sees fit to give it a shot.

      Thanks for the comment, and I hope you’ll send this post along to others who may share your opinion.

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