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Live, via satellite, it's injection molding basics!

March 1, 2000

4 Min Read
Live, via satellite, it's injection molding basics!

Machine operators, quality personnel, and college students in South Carolina and Florida were among those recently introduced to a new way of learning about molding. Called the Plastics Learning Network (PLN), this educational tool brings instructors into molding plants just as easily as it does into classrooms. All that’s required is a satellite dish and a television set.

The Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) hopes that this distance-learning program will help combat the shortage of trained personnel in the workforce, as well as provide a consistent training tool for plastics machine operators already at work.

"You’ve got a diminishing pool of workers coming in the door," says Richard Sturgis, SPI’s southern regional director. "Many of these new people are lacking the job skills that are necessary to compete quickly, and training them is very expensive."

Therefore, the industry is looking for new training methods to replace or enhance in-house programs, he adds. With in-house courses, which are often self-taught, training can be inconsistent. "Also, with people being stretched as thin as they are, it’s difficult for a company to dedicate the few managers it has to training," Sturgis says.

The PLN brings together existing state educational resources, plastics industry content providers, South Carolina Educational Television Network’s Business Link (which can broadcast the program throughout the U.S.), and the SPI.

The program allows employees—current and future—to be instructed anywhere via satellite by trained instructors who can offer immediate feedback to questions. Instructors can zoom in on demonstrations and parts, and questions can be asked via an 800 number, fax, or e-mail.

Compared to other technologies, the PLN is relatively inexpensive, says Sturgis. Currently, companies getting involved can spend between $3500 and $5000 to install a satellite dish or send their employees to a site with satellite capability, such as a technical college. Cost per student for the basic course offered during the pilot was $175.

To date, SPI has run two pilot programs. The Polymer Center of Excellence (Charlotte, NC) provided the content. The first program was started in early 1999 by the South Carolina Department of Commerce, Duke Energy, Mack Molding (Inman, SC), and Precision Southeast (Myrtle Beach, SC). The pilot consisted of 27 students taking classes twice a week for one month. "The results exceeded our expectations," says Sturgis, "and proved distance learning effective for small groups of employees in injection molding plants."

A second pilot, involving 12 companies and colleges in South Carolina and Florida, wrapped up in early February. The basics of injection molding were taught to 129 students.

Smart Payback
Precision Southeast, a custom injection molder serving a variety of industries, participated in both trials, sending seasoned process technicians to the first pilot and trainees to the second.

"The industry has changed so fast over the last few years that even our seasoned people are behind the times with new equipment, new electronics, and new philosophies on quality," says Bob Rea, HR manager at Precision Southeast. "We want our employees to have this new science behind them when they go out to make decisions on the production floor."

Employees at the company’s Myrtle Beach plant, which has a satellite dish, do not have to leave the plant for training. Those at the Marion, SC plant use a local technical school. Being involved in such a program holds many benefits for the company and the employee, believes Rea. "It lets our employees know that we think they’re important enough to buy them books and send them to class," he says. "Plus, if they do satisfactorily, they get a wage increase." In the end, the company gets a happy, more skilled worker.

Looking Ahead
The real cost of the PLN is in the satellite transmission, production, and instructors, says Sturgis. "We’re looking for states to help underwrite that cost," he adds. "Our belief is that this is a resource that should be offered in the state system. While some colleges offer plastics processing, it’s not nearly what you would expect for a $300 billion per year industry."

To that end, SPI is working to position the industry to take advantage of state funding that will be available through the Workforce Investment Act. In the meantime, a third pilot program, also on the basics of injection molding, has been scheduled for May. SPI plans to officially introduce PLN in the Fall.

Based on demand, additional courses are expected, including advanced injection molding, mold flow analysis, troubleshooting, safety in plastics plants, and process technician training.

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