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MMS students tour RTI plant
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RTI Safety and Environmental Manager Stuart Bowman (center) and Human Resources Manager Glenn Wood (left) lead students from Martinsville Middle School on the first field trip to the facility. (Contributed photo)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A class from Martinsville Middle School last week became the first nonofficial visitors to RTI International Metals Inc. in the Patriot Centre industrial park.

Seventh-graders in the NASA SEMAA program (which stands for Science, Engineering, Math and Aerospace Academy) toured the facility as part of their studies of aerospace and high-tech careers.

RTI specializes in advanced titanium products and other specialty metals, mainly for use in aerospace and some medical equipment.

Human Resources Manager Glenn Wood and Safety and Environmental Manager Stuart Bowman led a tour of the advanced manufacturing facilities and told students what the company looks for in hiring employees.

“The experience was part of our ongoing efforts to bring real life to students’ learning,” said Superintendent Pam Heath, who accompanied the group. “We want our students to be aware of career options and how the workflow of a business really operates. Then we want them to make that connection between what they are taught at school and the knowledge and skills they must master to be successful in a global workforce.”

Wearing hard hats and safety glasses, students and school officials watched stainless steel being forged in a natural gas-powered furnace that reached 2,100 degrees. The piece weighed 16,620 pounds — almost as much as a school bus. Students also saw a 5,500-ton press in action, one of only three or four in the U.S. They learned about titanium grinding, a process so bright it cannot be watched directly.

The students “were able to directly relate to what we were doing with what they’re studying,” Wood said.

Students learned that more than 80 percent of the titanium pieces manufactured here are used in aerospace products, which fits the SEMAA program’s focus on flight and space. RTI’s titanium products also are used as joint replacements for people because the metal is less corrosive than steel. Another RTI facility also fabricated the part of the mechanism that stopped the BP oil spill, students learned.

“I think the students saw that manufacturing today is quite different from anything they may have previously imagined,” Wood said. “I think they have an appreciation for where things come from and certainly about why we are so particular in our quality.”

The trip made an impression on the seventh-graders.

“It was cool getting to see how they worked with the metal” and “getting to see the grinder that they used smoothing it out,” said student Daniel Peay.

Morgan Clemons called the trip “very amazing.”

“I was surprised at how hot the oven was. We could feel the heat,” even from a safe distance away, she said, adding that she learned “getting along with everybody” is important for careers at RTI.

“It was exciting to see how they controlled machines to pick up the steel,” student Isaiah Martin said. The jobs require “teamwork, like in the control room.”

“If we truly want our students to understand why teamwork, math and science are important, they need this type of exposure where they can see these concepts in action in real life,” Heath said. “It’s one thing to talk in the classroom about a temperature of 2,000 degrees. It’s quite another to work with colleagues in a setting where you literally feel the blast of heat from this furnace that is so hot, it causes a 16,000-pound piece of stainless steel to glow like fire.”

The field trip fit the school system’s emphasis on skills that workers need to compete successfully in the 21st century economy, said Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Angilee Downing, who accompanied the group.

“We’re hearing from all our business partners about the need for collaboration, teamwork, critical thinking and problem-solving,” and observing RTI employees on the job drove that point home, Downing said. “They have to pay close attention and catch any little thing that goes wrong. You have to be able to think on your feet.”

Precision and attention to detail are crucial at RTI. The failure rate of the parts made at RTI is only 1 out of 10,000,000, students were told.

“In aerospace you really can’t have a tolerance for failure,” Wood said, because people’s lives are on the line.

In addition to the technical knowledge and computer literacy, he said, “it’s important to get along with people and work together. We have a very small workforce and are very reliant on one another. We tried to impress that upon the students.”

Despite the “massive facility,” there are only 27 employees, Wood said. “The number of people actually producing something here is pretty minimal because of the sophistication of the equipment. It’s not as labor-intensive.”

RTI employs mechanical craftsmen, who maintain and repair the equipment; utility operators, who operate the equipment and monitor the furnaces; support staff; and engineers, who need a strong background in advanced math. Wood said they hope to have a recent graduate of engineering school there to talk to students on the next field trip.

Students are following up in the SEMAA classroom by doing a career project. Each student chooses a career related to science, technology, engineering or math to research and learn what education it requires.

RTI started more than 60 years ago and has facilities in North America, Europe, and Asia. Its Henry County facility opened in December.

“Because we’re such a small community, people may not realize how globally connected some of our local businesses are,” Heath said. “It just shows that whether you move away or stay in this community, these skill sets are needed.”


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