NORFOLK, Neb. – Students in the Hawks Mfg. Club at Northeast Community College have modernized a board game whose roots can be traced back to 3,000 B.C. Club members have used equipment in the program’s lab in the College’s Applied Technology building to create stylish pieces made out of aluminum and acrylic boards for the game of checkers.
Machining and Manufacturing Automation Instructor Steve Wagner said while the concept seems simple, there is much thought that goes into producing each game piece and boards.
“There are about 75 parts that all had to go through that process,” Wagner said. “The students do all of the machining; it’s on their time, not curriculum time. So, it’s over and above what they do in the lab and classroom.”
Checkers involves two players who strategically move 12 game pieces across an eight-by-eight grid on a board in order to capture an opponent’s pieces through jump moves. It is similar to chess in using a board, but there is a difference in the moves and strategy.
In the past, club members made similar aluminum chess pieces and acrylic boards with aluminum trim, but they moved away from chess since it was so time consuming and was a much larger project. The checkerboard project began during the last academic year, but the pandemic prevented students from finishing it last spring.
When they regrouped this fall, Wagner said the students said, “Let’s do checkers,” since they already had the format designed for the board and pieces. The students manufactured the components – checkers, acrylic pieces for the boards and the rails (side pieces that make up the trim of the board). This year’s students had to assess what had to be done and what portions of the project needed to be manufactured.
“The students produced blank aluminum pieces for each checker piece on the CNC (computer numerically controlled) lathe and there had to be a program written for that so (the students) took part in that as well,” Wagner said. “There also had to be a program written to machine the crown or the cuts on the checker pieces on another machine, which allows them to interlock. The machining has to be precise in order for the pieces to stack together.”
The next step requires plating and anodizing the pieces so they transform from silver to red and black.
“That’s a chemical process we put them through that not only gives them the color, but also a hard coating or surface so they are very durable.”
The rails for the board are also produced through CNC machining, which involve multiple programs. A local business then engraves the rail pieces. Once that work is complete, the students begin to assemble the boards which include each black and white acrylic tile that are squared and beveled through a CNC machine.
There is another aspect the students had to factor in that did not involve machining - how to market the product and establish a price. Each year, club members develop a plan to sell the boards as a fundraiser. Proceeds go towards offsetting students’ expenses in participating in field trips and visits to manufacturing facilities where they learn more about industry.
Wagner’s aim is that the project gives his students a better understanding of the scope and complexity of bringing a product to market, which includes process design, design for manufacturability, cost analysis, as well as consideration given to profit and loss.
The end product is a game, but Wagner said the work that leads up to it paints the whole picture for the students. He said the work is similar to what they will find once they secure employment with a manufacturer. It is also a good way to familiarize students to what it is like to introduce a product in the real world.
“They are able to see how to launch a project or product. ‘Where does it come from?’ Well, it comes from someone’s imagination. And then they look at it conceptually in what they want it to do. Then, we turn it into a process – the development of a plan which then leads into the actualization of making the parts,” Wagner said. “All the way down the line they are involved with this; not only thinking about the sales and marketing of the product, but also all of the upfront things that have to happen when you launch a product.”
Wagner said job opportunities clearly exist for his students. He said just about every place the students visit asks them if they would like to leave a resume.
“We just received a job opening from Northeast’s Career Services Office that a Nebraska company is looking for CNC machinists with a $1,000 hiring bonus. They’re doing everything they can to attract people and get them in.”
Wagner said COVID-19 has not suppressed manufacturing; it’s quite the opposite.
“There are sectors that are just booming to deal with the various aspects in the change in our economy and the change in our culture. I don’t see an economic suppression of COVID-19 in manufacturing, so the demand is every bit as large pre-COVID and the forecast going forward is extremely strong.”
And there are other factors. Many who have been employed in the industry for years have or are planning to retire, a fact complicated by fewer people going into the field. Wagner said the industry is looking for men and women who are interested in understanding how things work, those who enjoy working with a computer to drive the functions of an operation, and others who are interested in linear thought processes such as manufacturing or inspection.
“That’s exactly what we teach here. And Northeast students who pair programs with Machining and Manufacturing Automation, such as welding or mechanical drafting, can practically write their own ticket,” he said. “We have seen students here who have done all three programs together and they have a powerful resume.”
Students who enroll in Northeast’s Machining and Manufacturing Automation program qualify to receive financial assistance through a grant from the HAAS Foundation. There are no pre-requisites – once a student enrolls, they are signed up to receive the assistance. The focus of the program is to help facilitate students to come into manufacturing education.
Wagner said the checkerboard project may be an extra item for the students, but it has also been enjoyable experience.
“I know the students may come in and think it’s more work – and that’s okay. It helps instill discipline and when you are scheduled to work, you come in. These are the types of habits we are trying to instill in them as instructors.”
Northeast students who worked on the checkerboard project are Garrett Bloom, Norfolk; Wyatt Paxton, Stuart; Riley Peterson, Broken Bow; Sara Podliska, Norfolk; Dylan Trew, Kearney; Robert Wattermann, treasurer of the Hawks Mfg. Club, West Point; Troy White, president of the Hawks Mfg. Club, West Point; and Jacob Ziegenbein, Plainview.
Cost for the customized checkerboards are a suggested donation of $135, which covers costs of expenses and helps finance the field trip opportunities for the students.
“It’s very attractive and it’s very unique,” Wagner said. “I have one on my table at home that I purchased from the club and it’s a fun little centerpiece to show off and talk about.”
To learn more about the project, contact Wagner at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (402) 844-7223.
Members of the Hawks Mfg. Club in the Machining and Manufacturing Automation program at Northeast Community College show College President Leah Barrett an aluminum checkerboard and pieces they created on CNC (computer numerical control) equipment behind them in the program’s lab on the Northeast campus in Norfolk. Club members are selling the game as a fundraiser. Pictured with Barrett are club members Sara Podliska, Norfolk; Dylan Trew, Kearney; Troy White, West Point; Robert Wattermann, West Point; and Wyatt Paxton, Stuart.