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Tour offers new perspective
Supervisors visit PHCC, furniture plant
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Lou Larosa (second from left), PHCC motorsports instructor, shows an engine Thursday in the PHCC motorsports program as county officials toured the motorsports facility. From left are Deputy County Administrator Dale Wagoner and supervisors Jim Adams, Milton Kendall, Tommy Slaughter and H.G. Vaughn. (Bulletin photo)
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Friday, February 7, 2014

By BEN R. WILLIAMS - Bulletin Staff Writer

The Henry County Board of Supervisors took a field trip Thursday to the Patriot Centre at Beaver Creek industrial park, touring Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) Motorsports and Bassett Furniture Plant 11.

At the PHCC Motorsports facility, which shares buildings and equipment with Arrington Performance, the supervisors saw the results of PHCC’s automotive program.

“Mechatronics” was the word of the day.

Daniel Edwards, an instructor in the mechanical engineering tech department, explained mechatronics as “electronics, mechanicals, hydraulics and pneumatics all combined into one program.”

In mechatronics classes, he said, students learn how multiple engineering disciplines work together. To test students’ knowledge, Edwards tests them on a training device, essentially a scaled-down assembly line complete with a robotic arm. Raw products are introduced at one end of the assembly line, which performs quality checks and other procedures, and they eventually are assembled by the computer-controlled arm.

To test the students, he said, he introduces faults into the assembly line that the students must find, troubleshoot and correct using the knowledge they have gained in class.

“It’s one of our most successful programs at the college,” said Steve Branch, dean of PHCC’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) division. “It’s pretty much the golden key right now for anything in engineering and manufacturing.”

PHCC offers mechatronics certification, including a truncated “boot camp” night course for people in other industries, such as employees at Eastman Chemical who need mechatronics certification to advance in their careers.

PHCC President Angeline Godwin described mechatronics as “bedrock” knowledge for students hoping to get advanced manufacturing jobs.

“It’s a core of knowledge that applies to almost any industry, regardless of what product they make or how they make it,” Godwin said. “The more individuals we can train in that core, the more we can build bridges of training to meet specialty companies. ... That is a very, very powerful economic development tool.”

The supervisors also saw the fruits of the labors of the PHCC dual enrollment students.

Denver Smith and Danny Glad, both lab technicians and instructors in the dual enrollment program, showed the supervisors a dynamometer, a device that measures the power of engines. The dynamometer, which was safely sealed inside a thick-walled room, had an engine connected to it built by seven PHCC dual enrollment students.

“They had to take the whole thing apart,” Smith said, “clean it, check the block, the heads, intake, set valve lash, put the pistons in, fit the rings ... you name it, they did it.”

Glad had one of the students fire up the engine and give it gas to measure the horsepower, the first time any of the students had seen their engine in action.

After advancing it to 7700 RPM, the engine put out 441 horsepower (which, for those readers not automotively inclined, is a lot of horsepower).

Jeff Fields, dean of applied science and engineering technology, said that “in dual enrollment, students can come to us as juniors and seniors and they’ll accumulate some credit and knowledge. Once they graduate from high school, they can also transfer that over to their associate degree in motorsports technology. We’ve had great successes with those students, because they come in with a passion, and then we give them that additional knowledge, and they just kind of run with it.”

Fields said students have come from as far as Maine and New York to participate in the program.

Eric Hruza, chief executive officer of Arrington Performance, said the high-performance automotive company always looks to PHCC motorsports graduates to find talent to hire, and an understanding of mechatronics is crucial to understanding how to work on cars.

Because car manufacturers have forgone many simpler, mechanical devices such as distributors and carburetors, Hruza said, “if you’re going to work on a car in any meaningful way, you need to be able to work on the computer within the car.”

“Having the fundamental base in being able to understand how electronics, fluids, pneumatics, hydraulics and all of that comes together in a car (is necessary). You need that basis,” which PHCC provides, he added.

At Bassett Furniture Industries’ Plant 11 in Patriot Centre, plant manager Carter Underwood led the supervisors on a tour of the customized casual dining furniture facility.

“The plant itself opened in 1999, and the intent of the plant was to do formal dining room pieces,” Underwood said.

However, shortly after the plant opened, furniture manufacturing began to migrate to Asia.

To carve out a new niche, Underwood said, “the whole idea to make custom product came to the forefront.”

All of the products that the plant makes, he said, are “sold orders.”

“We don’t build anything to put into finished goods inventory,” Underwood said.

Although the parts and components of some of the pieces come from Vietnam and Malaysia, he said, all are assembled and finished in the U.S.

At Bassett stores, Underwood said, customers are able to look through a brochure that allows them to choose the components that they want on their piece of furniture. For example, on a table, the customer could decide whether she wants a pedestal or legs, what kind of legs she wants, table size, finish and other options.

Bassett can apply more than 50 different finishes to the furniture, Underwood said, and its in-house upholstery division has more than 1,000 fabrics to choose from.

“We’re proud that we’re still here and we’ve survived,” Underwood said.

See Sunday’s Martinsville Bulletin for more coverage of the supervisors’ Thursday meeting.


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