So much in the plastics industry — just like in life — happens purely by chance. How many times have you heard plastics veterans recall how they had no grand plan? They just fell into the industry.
Heavy Metal takes you to Southington, Conn., where a small custom injection molder, Vanguard Plastics Corp., made a chance connection with a bright young man who has become Vanguard's automation expert — and he's a high school student!
Matt Gaciarz was a junior at Southington High School last winter. Gaciarz was going door-to-door at an industrial park last winter, helping raise money for the school's CyberKnights robotics team. He stopped at Vanguard, and met President Christopher Budnick.
"They were raising money. Their job is to raise $70,000 to $80,000," said Budnick, who had heard about the 50-member team.
Budnick tells the story: "He came with a full presentation of what his team had done. And he was a junior in high school. And it was just a brilliant presentation. I was just blown away. So I said, 'Of course we'll donate.' We immediately wrote them a check, and asked him if he would like a tour of the factory. He really liked it, because it's right up his alley."
Gaciarz wants to major in mechatronics. "What's fascinating to him is solving problems with different types of technology, and fusing it all together," Budnick said. "So mechatronics, it's electronics, it's mechanical, it's robotics, all fused together in one thing. And you need all those different disciplines to solve manufacturing problems. And he really likes that. It's what animates him."
Now, understand that the CyberKnights, also known as Team 195, is something special. The 50-student team last year placed fourth in the FIRST Robotics world championship, with a robot called Knight Fury. According to Budnick, Southington High School started the robotics team about 20 years ago with just a handful of members.
Today the CyberKnights are rock stars. Budnick said there's even a JV team.
"If you go to Southington to the bagel shop, and you talk about Team 195, they're like 'Oh yeah, my next-door neighbor's on that! That's amazing stuff those kids are doing, isn't it?'" he said. Robot competitions draw cheering crowds.
Budnick still marvels at the high skill level of the team. "With 3,000 teams competing worldwide, what would you say where the best teams come from? You'd actually say, well they'll come from an automotive area. They'll come from NASA. They'll come from Boston where there's a lot of technology companies."
But Southington, Conn.? As Budnick said, "this isn't like Brainiac City." Just as bunch of regular families and students, who have been inspired to do better each year.
Walking through the factory, Gaciarz got jazzed up when he saw Vanguard's automation, including its use of the collaborative, two-armed Baxter robots. The company brought him on as an intern last summer. One of his first projects was integrating a Baxter with a machine vision system to make 13 different quality checks on critical automotive part, a steering column assembly.
Budnick called it a "pretty high-stakes project." And a high school student did what consultants couldn't quite figure out.
On another project, Budnick was frustrated because contractors were quoting big money to bring WiFi down to Vanguard's warehouse. Gaciarz did it for $500. He ordered the stuff on Amazon.
It's no surprise that Vanguard Plastics is bringing Matt Gaciarz back this summer for another internship. The $7 million molder with 21 injection molding presses gives him freedom and plenty of responsibility — which Budnick said is a major attraction a small manufacturer can offer.
Budnick is glad he gave Gaciarz the tour. "It's really refreshing," he said. "Everyone's all down on, you know, millennials and young people." Yes, Gaciarz uses his iPhone, but he's not obsessed with it. He has things to think about and build — including a bright future.
"Matt is now becoming our automation team, along with his friends," he said. This summer, the high school seniors will rebuild a bearing assembly machine.
Budnick plans to keep supporting the CyberKnights and "develop that pipeline" of talented young automation experts. Vanguard Plastics has donated a CNC machine to the team, in addition to making the financial contribution.
The message: Instead of moaning about the lack of skilled young workers, contact your local high school and see if they have a robotics team — or volunteer to start one. Budnick said it's more than just community service.
"Go in and help your local robotics team, because guess what? They'll come and help you," he said.