Manufacturing Insights: From Tinkering to Manufacturing

June 30, 2010
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Everything we can do to encourage our youth to become tinkerers will be beneficial to our future.

Manufacturing is indispensable to both the American economy and the nation’s security. Regrettably, however, interest in manufacturing or the skilled trades as a career has waned. Of 500 teens, ages 13 to 17, polled recently by the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association International (FMA), 52 percent had little or no interest in a manufacturing career, and 21 percent were ambivalent.

The FMA poll also showed that 61 percent of teens have never visited a manufacturing facility, and only 28 percent have taken an industrial arts or shop class, which have all but disappeared from most schools. Thus, it’s not surprising that making things from one’s own design-one very good “formal definition” of tinkering-is nowhere near as common as it once was.

However, the economic crisis and falling prices of high-tech tools and materials have boosted an interest in hands-on work, according to Justin Lahart. Writing recently in The Wall Street Journal, Lahart cites as an example Blake Sessions, a junior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has a small CNC milling machine in his dorm room. Sessions uses the mill to make prototypes for a bicycle sprocket business he plans to start. The prototypes are also a springboard for developing more complex products, such as a device to increase mobility for arthritis sufferers. Sessions thinks his interest in tinkering will give him an advantage in the global marketplace.

The FMA and John Ratzenberger-who played postman Cliff Clavin in the TV sitcom Cheers-have teamed up to form the Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs Foundation (, which is dedicated to nurturing the tinkering spirit. “The manufacturing community must do a better job informing children that working in a factory is rewarding both personally and financially,” says Ratzenberger, who is also the host of the factory-focused Travel Channel show John Ratzenberger’s Made in America. “It all starts with getting young people to take pride in tinkering and inspiring them to work with both their hands and their minds.”

The foundation partners with the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship to conduct a summer camp program that combines elements of manufacturing. Campers learn how to design a product using CAD equipment, operate manufacturing equipment under supervision of experienced trainers, and tour local manufacturing plants. Visit the foundation’s web site for the 2010 schedule and camp locations near you.

Other organizations are working to stimulate interest in tinkering, and to provide facilities and equipment for would-be designers and artisans of all ages to learn hands-on work. One is the Tinkering School in Montara, CA. The school was founded by Gever Tulley, a senior computer scientist who says he started it because it’s the kind of thing he would like to have been able to attend himself. The school helps kids ages 8 to 17 learn how to build things. It is a seven-day, six-night sleepover camp where kids can learn basic and advanced building techniques through hands-on practice with adult supervision.

Another is TechShop in Menlo Park, CA. Founded in 2006, it’s the Bay Area’s only open-access public workshop. The membership-based workshop provides access to a variety of metal- and wood-working machinery, as well as classes in operating the equipment. It offers the opportunity to turn project ideas into reality and-because kids ages 12 to 18 can work on projects under supervision-it’s an ideal way to help them learn the value of hands-on craftsmanship.

Tinkering is one of the best entrées to a career in engineering or the skilled trades. Everything we can do to encourage our youth to become tinkerers-and to encourage their parents to support them-will be beneficial to our future.

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