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Training & Education

Starting a career

By Nick Wright

Hands-on fabrication lets students test their mettle at Project Mini Chopper

June 2012 - For the fourth year, three Wisconsin high schools fabricated two-wheeled choppers with one goal: to win. But the accolades go beyond the trophy for Project Mini Chopper, a collaborative contest among teams of students and a sponsoring partner company to design, build and rev up motorcycles fabricated from scratch.

As students bend metal, hammer out parts and weld frames, they’re in the unique position to learn skills, improve the image of manufacturing in the Manitowoc County community and catch the eye of potential employers. Bikes are judged on how closely the final product follows the initial design as well as presentation.

Sponsoring companies, which include manufacturers and a nearby technical college, supplied a $2,750 budget for each team to buy a 250 cc V-twin manual transmission motor. They also supplied their service, materials and expertise.

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Ryan Zimmerman, technology education instructor for one of the three teams from Manitowoc’s Lincoln High School, says the first step is working with the sponsor to approve a design, incorporating nuances like company logos and color schemes. Machine shop Stecker Machine Co. provided Zimmerman’s students with CNC machined aluminum, used for engine side covers that featured SMC’s logo.

Proximity drove mild competition between students and teachers because the two other teams at Lincoln shared shop space and tools.

“We’d hide parts under sheets and in closets so other teams don’t steal your ideas,” Zimmerman says. The shop has tools such as Miller Electric and Lincoln Electric wire feed welders, sheet metal brakes, plasma cutters and milling machines. “But when it gets down to the last week, you just want to make sure the bike will run. In that aspect, you need to make sure the school looks good, too,” he adds.

At Mishicot High School, Mishicot, Wis., technology education teacher David Cash supervised two teams. Under the auspices of KNM, a local machine shop, one team built a combustion chopper. Lakeshore Technical College sponsored the second team for an electric chopper running off of two 12 V batteries.

Cash says his students prototyped parts with cardboard templates and made bike mockups with formed PVC piping before cutting metal. While extensive trial and error dictated much of the process’ success, engaging the students from a hands-on, learning-by-doing approach and cultivating interest was the bigger picture.

“Whether you’re working on a transmission from a washing machine or a car, you’ve got to figure out where the parts are, and that’s the big thing with me,” Cash says, noting the bikes were made from mostly 18-gauge steel. “I had one student who was a sophomore who never had a tech ed class before, but he really jumped on the hand-forming, and he did most bending for both bikes.”

Prospective job
The challenges of fabricating a bike from scratch for Project Mini Chopper are not all unlike those of, Paul Sr. of “Orange County Choppers.” But coordinating academic schedules to meet a looming April deadline while creating a bike reflecting the sponsor company increases the pressure, according to Jacob Haag, the team instructor from Valders High School, which won best bike for Oil-Rite Corp.

“The students had 46 minutes a day during school to work on the bike, but we still had many early mornings and late nights at school,” he says. “The class and I even spent a few Saturdays getting the bike ready for paint and actually then a few nights spraying the final colors on the bike.”

Still, the sweat equity pays off. Students who return to next year’s project bring experience, knowledge and leadership. And companies often tap graduating seniors for jobs.
Joe Teresi, plant manager at Oil-Rite, says the students essentially get a year of on-the-job training with Project Mini Chopper. Oil-Rite hires two students for each summer to “give them experience of what factory work is like,” he says. Students have taken jobs such as welders, designers and machinists.

Sponsoring companies claim the bikes after the unveiling event to use in promotional displays and showcase in parades. The choppers are about three quarters the size of a normal motorcycle and aren’t street legal. They generally lack basics like turn signals and VIN numbers, but they are ridable.

“They made a beautiful motorcycle this year,” Teresi says. FFJ

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