American manufacturing and welding to women: We want you!

Six years after the start of a deep recession and a growing call for more middle-class manufacturing jobs, one American industry is tackling workforce development in a unique way. Welding is courting fresh recruits—women in particular.

Welder Becky Lorenz

Source: The University of Maryland at College Park
Becky Lorenz—who runs her own shop, Aerospace Welding Services in Silver Spring, Md.—is among America's few female welders and machinists.
 
 

High-tech Chair Brings Job Into Reach for Young Welder

Jordan Kay is proving that no job is out of reach.

Kay, a welder in work experience training with the City of Minot, was in kindergarten when he was paralyzed in a car accident. His dream to become a welder in a mechanics shop might have been dashed but for the help and ingenuity of instructors at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton.

Many fabrication welding tasks require standing to be able to reach equipment or work on machines. Faculty at the college created a wheelchair with a lift mechanism that enables Kay to stand to perform a job. The chair designed especially for Kay was the subject of an article published in the September issue of the Welding Journal.

"It's a lot heavier, but it is really helpful," Kay said of his customized "Cadillac."

The wheelchair weighs about 50 pounds more than a standard chair and comes with special belts, braces and a pneumatic system. NDSCS instructors Jay Schimelfenig and Joel Johnson, who took lead roles in the project, spent most of a year developing it.

Although Kay can use his regular wheelchair for some of the jobs at the Minot city shop, tasks come up at least a couple times a day that require the lift wheelchair.

"They bring in a lot of big trucks. You have to be up pretty high to weld on them," Kay said.

Kay has wanted to be a welder from a young age.

"My dad works as a mechanic in a shop. He let me try welding there, and I liked it," he said.

Kay took auto mechanics and a couple of welding courses at Minot High School. When he enrolled at NDSCS in the fall of 2007, the school immediately began thinking about what they would need to do to accommodate him. The first change was to install an elevator to make its second-story welding labs accessible.

The first year's courses required simple adjustments to table heights and equipment for Kay. Johnson said they knew that bigger obstacles would arise during the second year of the welding program when students do fabrication work.

"All our equipment is for a standard person, standing up. And it is heavy equipment," he said. "We knew we were going to have to do something to get him up to the equipment. We couldn't make those modifications to the equipment. It was just impossible."

Initially, instructors toyed with the idea of raising Kay's wheelchair. In discussing his physical capabilities with Kay, they switched focus to a stand-up wheelchair. They discovered a stand-up wheelchair existed, but ordering the chair was impractical for various reasons. One was the risk of explosion in bringing a battery-operated chair into a welding environment. The other was price. The ready-made model was simply too expensive.

So they decided to build their own wheelchair. The idea initially received a cool reception from Kay.

"Understandably, he was apprehensive," Johnson recalled.

Once Kay was finally persuaded that the idea just might work, efforts took off to make the chair a reality.

Instructor Jay Schimelfenig said he spent about 250 hours in design and drawing time. He used SolidWorks, a 3-D modeling software, that enabled him to check for interferences and design problems before actual construction. He also measured Kay numerous times to make sure the chair would fit him and would be comfortable to use.

Once Kay saw a semi-finished product, he became more involved. He worked closely with Johnson and Schimelfenig on the construction.

Construction was an "interesting" process, Schimelfenig said. They went back to the drawing board a number of times.

"It was a lot of work," Kay said. "Sometimes it wasn't fun."

"If you ask Jordan how many times he's taken the chair apart to change a little something, he probably couldn't tell you," Schimelfenig said of the frequent makeovers. "He could probably take that thing apart in his sleep by the time we got it done."

The power mechanism for the chair comes from air pressure. The aluminum chair sits on two parallel links with air cylinders hooked to those links. A switch on the arm rest enables Kay to control the line pressure.

When engaged, the undercarriage first moves down to lift the front wheels off the ground to keep the chair from rolling. The seat lifts to about a 75 degree angle, which puts Kay in a standing position and still allows him to keep his weight back on the main frame of the chair.

A seat belt holds his upper body in place, and a leg brace secures his knees as his legs support his weight.

The chair was built on the axle and wheels from another chair that Kay had. The NDSCS autobody department upholstered the seat cushions and back rest using an old leather jacket donated by Schimelfenig.

Goodrich Corp. in Jamestown donated most of the scrap aluminum used in the chair. Tri-State Aviation and MDI in Wahpeton donated some specialty aluminum. The Wahpeton Mayor's Committee for People with Disabilities donated money for parts. Independent Cycles of Rapid City, S.D., donated a miniature 200 PSI air compressor and components.

Schimelfenig said the school ran out of time to get the chair mounted with an operating mechanism that would enable Kay to be free of hoses connecting him to an air source. However, once in Minot, Kay's supervisor equipped his chair with carbon dioxide tanks to give him mobility.

Kay said he was "a little excited, a little nervous" to use the wheelchair for the first time. Johnson said Kay was shaky at first and needed some support until he got used to the feeling of standing in his chair.

Kay said the wheelchair provides good therapy for keeping his body limber.
"It stretches my legs out," he said. "It's a pretty good workout for my stomach, too."

Kay graduated with an associate's degree from NDSCS. He began work in Minot in June through Job Service North Dakota Workforce Investment Act Youth Program. He completes the program at end of this month. He has no definite plans for what will follow, but he plans to remain in the welding field.

Dennis Hoff, shop foreman, said the city didn't hesitate to bring Kay into the shop.

"We are pretty excited to have him," Hoff said. "He's a neat kid. He's a hard working kid."

It's been good to get feedback from Kay on ways to make the building more friendly to people in wheelchairs, and some building updates have occurred as a result, he said.

"We have had him sit in on our safety meetings. We get a real good perspective," he said. "There's things you wouldn't think about if you didn't have someone here who is in a chair."

Hoff said Kay has the skills and motivation to do well. He could excel in a production facility where he could sit at a work station and encounter few physical obstacles.

"But I don't think he could ever be happy doing that," Hoff said. "He needs to be challenged. I think he's going to need to fabricate to do that."
Kay is grateful for the work the staff at NDSCS put into making the wheelchair and their generosity in letting him take it with him.

"It's pretty amazing that they just gave me all that," he said.

Schimelfenig said instructors at NDSCS are thinking about building another chair to have on hand should another student ever need one. They would like to do more work on the design and take it to the next level, he said.

The department also has received inquiries about the chair from outside the state. A welding school in Florida asked for the design because it wants to make a chair for one of its students.

Teaching students to weld is rewarding, Schimelfenig said, but it feels even better to create something that makes the kind of difference to a student that the chair makes to Kay.

"It's a great feeling, "Schimelfenig said. "We like happy endings."