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American Precision Museum Inspires Spirit of Invention

Category: Smartforce Dec 9, 2020

Just as a machine tool lays the groundwork for countless new parts, the American Precision Museum (APM) lays the foundation for inspiring the next generation of advanced manufacturers.

Stephen LaMarca, AMT’s manufacturing technology analyst, took a trip to APM in the IMTS Network series, Road Trippin’ with Steve. During an episode, he explored the museum’s exhibit on the story of American entrepreneurship, starting with the need to make parts interchangeable and processes repeatable.

His enthusiasm for the collection inspired IMTS Network correspondent Kathy Keyes Webster to find out more about this industry treasure and its mission. Following is her interview with Alice Cable, APM Assistant Executive Director, who develops the museum’s outreach programs.

Kathy: What do visitors experience when they come to the APM?

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Alice: Visitors learn the evolution of manufacturing and its impact on daily life through displays of the first precision machine tools to today’s state-of-the-art manufacturing technology. Throughout the year, we offer camps and workshops where students experience innovation, problem solving, and design—which often ignites a passion for pursuing STEAM education and careers in advanced manufacturing. (The “A” stands for “art.”)

Kathy: What is the main exhibit?

Alice: Shaping America tells the story of how local resourcefulness and entrepreneurship gave birth to modern manufacturing through the invention of the world’s first automated machine tools right here in Windsor, Vermont, also known as Precision Valley. You might say that in the 19th century Precision Valley was today’s Silicon Valley.

A copy or duplicator lathe invented by Thomas Blanchard in 1818.

A copy or duplicator lathe, invented by Thomas Blanchard in 1818, is the first machine visitors encounter. It transfers a shape from one object to a new piece of raw material—duplicating complex wood shapes such as gun stocks, ax handles, wheel spokes, and more. This lathe brought about a new understanding that duplication was essential for mass manufacturing. By 1846, machines like this were used to make rifles with interchangeable parts.

Visitors get to see a variety of early machine tools, images, and diagrams for dividing and specializing tasks, which helped increase mass production and foster the American System of Manufacturing—driving American industrialization and allowing more to be made in large quantities, including sewing machines, typewriters, bicycles, automobiles, tractors, and necessary items for WWI and WWII.

As visitors go through the progression of the machine tools, which include the very first Bridgeport milling machine with the serial #1 and another from the 1980s, they appreciate how far manufacturing technology has come. They see a robotic arm, a CNC machine, and even software and understand how it is entwined with our well-being and prosperity.

Alice Cable, APM Assistant Executive Director, shows visitors a robotic arm.

Visitors learn about a variety of manufacturing processes and how they impact our lives—from large instruments on the International Space Station to tiny medical devices that help blood flow.

Kathy: Where do the camps and workshops take place?

Alice: Camps and workshops take place throughout the year in the APM’s Learning Lab, welcoming visitors of every age, or as we like to say: ’K’ through ’gray’. These offerings provide visitors a chance to be a high-tech inventor using 3D design, coding, and electronics. Younger visitors can try challenges with blocks and building kits.

Kathy: What do they create?

Alice: In one activity visitors are challenged to make something that moves. This summer, an eight-year-old boy created a movie projector using wheels, transparent tape, and boxes. Another student in the same program built a boat powered by a rubber band. And they did all this from a box of recyclable material.

APM student making a projector from the materials in the recycling bin with gears and wheels.

Kathy: Why is it important to offer these hands-on challenges?

Alice: These activities give the students a huge sense of accomplishment when they create something from nothing. Students are excited by the 19th century duplicator lathe, the 3D printers, the CNC machines, and their own ingenuity. They see the direct connection between STEAM curriculum and manufacturing—realizing STEAM careers are for more than just game designers and lab research scientists.

As they work through their design, they make positive associations with advanced manufacturing—very important for eight to 12-year-olds as they’ll soon make curriculum choices toward careers goals.

Kathy: What is a typical summer camp at the museum?

Alice: This summer, our camps filled up quickly. In our Process Expedition Workshop, students used CAD to create their own 2D drawing and 3D model before making a 3D product. They were thrilled to participate in polymer processing, which included molding, casting, injection, extrusion and thermoforming to make their own finished pieces. The objects were quite beautiful. It’s rewarding to see students, who think of themselves as artistic, realize advanced manufacturing needs designers and creatives like them.

Polymer parts (Or art?) created by students in the Polymer Processing summer camp.

Kathy: How can people from across the country access these programs?

Alice:: Because it’s the ‘American’ Precision Museum, not the ‘Windsor, Vermont’ Museum, we are developing online programs to be accessed soon from our website. We are also forming partnerships with other STEAM initiatives across the country for more students to take part in person but in a location convenient to them, so more students can access our unique programs.

Kathy: What is the APM Innovation Station?

Alice:: In our Innovation Station, visitors watch local high school students, employed as interns, manufacture various parts on both historic and modern machine tools. The interns are enrolled in local manufacturing technology classes and receive hands-on experience with machine tools while learning about advancements in the field and career opportunities. They also serve as mentors to younger students, inspiring them to pursue STEAM education and careers in manufacturing.

This year, our intern’s product is one of our best-selling items in our museum shop. It’s a CNC-machine cube with a floating center. We are very proud of our interns, many have pursued education and careers in manufacturing.

The APM Innovation Station features a number of equipment and software by IMTS exhibitors including a machining center with a Midaco Pallet Changer, a Fanuc LR Mate 200 iD articulated arm robot, a Bridgeport milling machine with HEIDENHAIN conversational CNC controller, Caron Engineering D-Tect It Machine Condition Monitoring System, and several 3D printers including one from Ultimaker.

Kathy: What’s significant about the building that houses the APM?

Alice: The museum is housed in the former Robbins & Lawrence Armory, a National Historic Landmark, and is located along the Connecticut River. It sits in what was once the center of an invention and economic hub of Precision Valley.

Two powers spurred Precision Valley to prominence in the 19th century. The river’s water fueled the region’s factories. Talented machinists and tool builders worked to innovate and improve their machines’ efficiencies. Precision Valley played an important role in determining the course of American history as it introduced processes for mass production and accelerated America’s role in industrialization

Kathy: What do you want visitors to take away from their experience?

Alice: We hope visitors walk away with respect and awe for manufacturing’s past, understanding of its impact on the present, and eager anticipation for the advances of the future. We especially hope students, as well as their parents and teachers, leave with a positive impression for pursuing STEAM education, careers in manufacturing technology, and dreams of entrepreneurship.

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