Economic developers to see Spot Lowe students' device

Thursday, December 8, 2011
Tribune photo by Clint Confehr Joey Paige, left, and Chris Chapman, right, display the device they designed and built to sort balls.

By Clint Confehr

Senior Staff Writer

As industrialists are looking for a trained workforce in Tennessee, students at the Spot Lowe Technology Center in Lewisburg are building devices that are, conceptually, not much different from what's found in a factory.

And at noon Tuesday, members of the Joint Economic and Community Development Board will be meeting at the center directed by Lyn Stacey who says some of the students there have built a marble sorter; a machine that separates glass, wooden and steel balls.

There's more to it than that, but there's quite a bit less to it, in size, than what one might find in a factory. It's not hard to see both points. Two students could hold their contraption up for a photograph.

And one of them explains that part of another device they made might be, in a larger form, something used at a factory like the Walker Die Casting plant in the Lewisburg Industrial Park.

"It could be used to push a part out of a die, like in injection molding," senior Chris Chapman said Wednesday morning.

He and Joey Paige were explaining how their other device uses an air compressor to push a shaft and piston through a pneumatic cylinder to throw a switch that applies a brake in a circuit.

As for the marble sorter, Stacey says Paige and Chapman "built it a couple of weeks ago. We left it assembled so they could show it" to the JECDB.

That board includes all the mayors in the county and representatives from various walks of life and professions. Generally speaking, their task is to improve the community and develop the local economy. Mike Wiles, executive director of the JECDB, coordinated the board's meeting at the technology center.

Wiles is also arranging meetings between industrialists and students so someone in charge of a factory can explain what it takes to get a job in that line of work. Leaders at the Calsonic Kansai North America (CKNA) plant in Lewisburg have already spoken with high school students. Wiles is arranging a similar session for middle school students.

It's a point made at JECDB meetings and was repeated Tuesday during the monthly meeting of the Lewisburg Industrial Development Board at its new meeting place, the Historic First Avenue Building.

Both panels have been working to get educators and industrialists together so schools can graduate students prepared to become part of a valuable workforce.

On Tuesday, Stacey is to tell the JECDB about the school and what it offers: "Our mission and vision," he said, "and give members a tour of the facility, so they know what is offered."

He's also going to have the marble sorter on display. Seeing it work is like watching a better mousetrap catch mice. It, in effect, separates wheat from chaff.

An electromagnet redirects steel balls, he said. Then a photo resistor recognizes reflection from a glass marble and sends it to one bin and the wooden marble rolls to another. The end result is three small bins, one with glass marbles, one with steel balls, and another with wooden marbles.

"Here's a whole semester's worth of learning," instructor Danny Adams said, gesturing in his classroom toward the marble sorter. "They had to think up a design."

In a prepared statement, Chapman and Paige explained, "The project required that we construct an automated device that would separate three steel, three wood, and three glass marbles into separate containers.

"To accomplish this task," the students continued, "we had to develop an in-depth understanding of how different sensors and motors work together with a programmable logic control to differentiate between the different marbles and sort them automatically."

They also used gravity to keep the balls rolling through their sorter.

It's clear the students recognized that steel could be separated magnetically from the glass and wooden balls.

The sorter has chutes for the balls and bins into which the balls eventually fall. The hopper at the top of the sorter is fed by hand, as Chapman explains, "You put them all in in a mixed-up order."

Chapman's parents are Tim and Dawn Chapman of Yell Road. Chris is "looking into going into mechanical engineering," he said.

Paige, son of Robert and Heidi Paige, isn't sure which career path he wants, the freshman said. "I know it's going to have something to do with computers," Joey said.

That's a significant direction, according to Lewisburg Economic Developer Greg Lowe, who's frequently remarked that today's factory jobs require computer skills.

While the marble sorter's hopper must be fed by hand, the device is started by a series of keystrokes on a computer. The computer's monitor displays a flow chart of steps for the sorting.

"While it was a challenge," the students wrote in their prepared statement for this story, "we were able to finish our sorter ahead of schedule. We feel that building the device from scratch was much more beneficial than following step-by-step directions. It forced us to apply previous knowledge and to be creative.

"Also, the project really opened our eyes to real-world applications. Since completing the task, we have visited and studied several industries that use automation to improve efficiency and productivity. We feel that building this marble sorter has really helped us appreciate the nature of industry."

An important aspect of industrial work was a subtle part of the assignment.

"It teaches you how to work in a team," Adams said. "Employers want people who can work in a team."

Meanwhile, the students' explanation reveals there's more to the class than shooting marbles.

"In our engineering class, we have been asked to design many things; from a power-generating windmill to a hydrogen-powered car," Paige and Chapman said.