Rob Frank/R. Frank Media
Joel Sander, left, and Brian Stempka, right, working at McDowell Manufacturing’s robotic welder.

A Machining Company Run by High-Schoolers Thrives in Pennsylvania: Manufacturing Day 2022

Oct. 6, 2022
In just three years, the students have manufactured 13,522 parts for more than 10 companies.

McDowell Manufacturing delivered its first order of parts to its first customer, Munot Plastics, in March 2021. Since then, business has been good. Oh, and by the way, this manufacturing business is run by students as a program at McDowell Senior High School in Millcreek Township, a suburb of Erie, Pennsylvania.

Even amid the pandemic during their first year, the students were busy and productive. They added new customers and gained hands-on experience running a manufacturing company, from production supervision, design and operating CNC machines to marketing, sales and quoting jobs.

McDowell Manufacturing recently began is its third year with more than 50 students enrolled (starting with a goal of only six students the first year, yet enrolling 21). Since 2021, the students have manufactured 13,522 parts for more than 10 companies. Using a robotic welder, they have also created their own original product—an industrial-looking coat hook that they have on consignment at local hardware stores.

Kyle Bucholtz, McDowell Manufacturing teacher/advisor, says the students not only get a great introduction to manufacturing—they gain experience “running a company, learning skills, and setting themselves apart for when they enter the workforce or continue their education.”

Northwest Industrial Resource Center (NWIRC), one of Pennsylvania’s seven Manufacturing Extension Partnerships, helps identify companies and potential projects for the enterprise and make the necessary connections.

Watch this 8-minute  video to learn more about McDowell Manufacturing, see some of the technology, and hear directly from the students involved.

Many of McDowell Manufacturing’s customers are also mentors to the students. Bryan Stempka, a McDowell High School graduate and vice president of family-owned manufacturerAdvanced Welding Technologies (AWT), spends time at the school’s technology lab reviewing product specs and also hosts the students at his facility to provide a bigger picture of the business.

After his first tour of McDowell Manufacturing back in 2021, Stempka knew there would be a collaboration. “I wanted to provide the students with some hands-on and real-world experience, but our company also had some capacity challenges that I thought McDowell Manufacturing could be a solution [for],” he said.

One of AWT’s customers is a large manufacturing company in the North American transportation industry. One of the parts they require typically involves short-run production with low tolerances and takes some time for machine setup. Stempka thought that would be a perfect part for the students to produce and would free up capacity at his job shop.

The students reviewed the requirements, drew up a quote and were chosen for the work. McDowell Manufacturing now produces four different parts for AWT. Proceeds from the revenue goes back into the program and is later awarded to graduates as scholarships to help with the costs of books and tools as they enter the workforce or continue their education.

Some students in the program have been hired into manufacturing companies, sometimes even before they graduate. Others have gone on to pursue college education in fields like engineering—with a manufacturing focus they hadn’t considered until working in this program.  

Robert Zaruta is president/CEO of the Northwest Industrial Resource Center.

Main photo: Joel Sander, left, and Brian Stempka, right, work at McDowell Manufacturing’s robotic welder.

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