Archived News

Beyond the wrench: Changing credentials for manufacturing fix-it men lead to new workforce training initative at HCC

fr industryIt’s an industrial mechanic’s worst nightmare.

A machine on the assembly line goes down, and production screeches to a halt. Workers stand idle despite being on the clock. Orders are backing up. All eyes are on the mechanic. Is it a worn bearing, a loose belt, a slipped coupling, a blown fuse? The trouble-shooting within the bowels of the hulking metal parts is endless. 


The high-stress scenario is one that Doug Burchfield doesn’t particularly miss from his 20 years as an industrial mechanic.

“It is extremely costly when you have broken equipment sitting there on the floor,” said Burchfield, the industry training coordinator at Haywood Community College. “Everyone standing there can tell you how much money it costs every minute to run a piece of equipment and how much it is costing every minute that piece of equipment is down.”

The best bet is to avoid breakdowns in the first place, giving rise to the growing emphasis on a field known as reliability maintenance in today’s world of industrial systems technology.

Related Items

Instead of putting out fires, today’s industrial mechanics are supposed to predict where they’ll happen, and intervene before they do.

“The focus has shifted from ‘What’s broken today, What do we have to fix today?’ to predictive maintenance,” Burchfield said. “You want to effectively predict when something is going to go down and pre-empt that with some focused maintenance on that machine.”

HCC has just announced a major new curriculum initiative in reliability maintenance, thanks to a $212,000 grant from the Duke Energy Foundation. The niche workforce training in reliability maintenance will be developed with input from Haywood County manufacturing plants, including Evergreen Packaging, Sonoco, Consolidated Metco and Haywood Vocational Opportunities.

“Manufacturing is a critical part of the economic development landscape in Western North Carolina,” said HCC President Barbara Parker, crediting the Duke Energy grant for enabling HCC to provide a new area of workforce training that will in turn make local industries more competitive.

“Any time you can predict downtime or plan for downtime you are always going to be more profitable,” Burchfield said.

For example, one way to detect machinery problems before the blow up is vibration analysis.

“You use vibration detection equipment and set a baseline for vibration readings, and then follow it up with regular inspections. If you see a shift in vibration, you can look for brushes in the motor going bad, bad bearings, a worn belt — there are so many scenarios you could go through as you take a deeper dive,” Burchfield said.

Thermal imaging is another tool. Thermal readings can detect heat anomalies from rubbing parts, hidden corrosion in electrical wiring or a bad fuse.

When an industrial mechanic detects a problem on the horizon, he can order the parts he needs ahead of time and schedule an outage to fix it when it will least affect production.

“It lowers their inventory cost of having as many spare parts on hand, and also gives them a tool to preempt any unnecessary downtime,” he said.

But to teach these skills, HCC needed equipment like vibration detectors and thermal imaging sensors for students to train on. Half the grant money will be spent on this sort of equipment. Acquiring the technology was the biggest financial barrier to implementing the new program. The Duke grant solved that.

The other half of the grant will be spent developing the content and curriculum in reliability maintenance. Initially, HCC will offer courses as continuing education.

“Someone trying to brush up on skills, get some training to become more employable — that’s what continuing education is for,” said Burchfield, who is currently the interim dean of continuing workforce education at HCC.

Manufacturing industries may also run teams of industrial mechanics through the courses.

Eventually, the training components will be incorporated into degrees within the advanced technologies program.

“We want to increase the skills of current employees at our manufacturing facilities and hopefully help them become more productive. And at the same time, we want to teach our students skills that would be beneficial once they graduate to make them better qualified, more employable and more productive the day they start,” Burchfield said.

HCC will hire consulting experts to develop the curriculum. Rather than hire special instructors to teach those units, however, existing instructors will be trained to assimilate it into the coursework — thus institutionalizing reliability maintenance as an on-going component of industrial degrees.

“We don’t just want to throw a teacher at it for three years and then three years later it goes away when the money is gone,” Burchfield said. “We want it to be something we can sustain long term as part of our curriculum.”

Some aspects of reliability maintenance are already part of the industrial systems technology coursework. On a tour of the industrial technology lab at HCC’s High-Tech Center, Burchfield pulled out a set of drive shafts joined by a coupling and mounted on moving plates.

“Both of those need to be in perfect alignment,” Burchfield said, pointing down the drive shafts. “Or you start to get a cam effect. It quickly starts to wear on bearings in that piece of equipment and causes premature failure.”

Students learn to use laser alignment equipment to line up the drive shafts on either side of the coupling with hairline accuracy, analyzing the digital readouts of which axis is out of alignment and by how much, and then fix it — thus extending the life of machinery.

HCC has historically worked with local industries to offer courses and training that would contribute to a ready workforce. HCC has an open door policy with local manufacturing companies, inviting them to bring their workforce needs to the college at any time. 

That’s how the idea for HCC’s new reliability maintenance training came about. Evergreen Packaging, the paper mill in Canton that employs 1,200 people, asked the college if it could develop a program to help train workers in the field.

“So we started looking for a grant that would match some of their needs,” Burchfield said.

HCC looked to a special pot of grant funding from Duke Energy that’s earmarked for community college workforce readiness training initiatives.

“This is one of the things we continuously hear that there was a need for enhanced workforce training,” said Jason Walls, Duke’s district manager for a six-county area surrounding Asheville. “The purpose is to support our state’s community colleges in training the workforce that’s needed by industries we are helping to recruit and retain.”

Early this year, Duke gave $200,000 to Southwestern Community College to launch a new Mechatronics Engineering Technology program — a type of computer-based and robotic-driven manufacturing training. And Duke also gave $200,000 to Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College to help its high-demand craft beverage and brewing institute buy equipment, including a seven-barrel brewhouse, a distillation system and wine making system.

Over the past 10 years, Duke has given more than $15 million in grants to 24 community colleges through the industrial and technical workforce training program aimed at supporting business and industry.

For Duke Energy, supporting workforce readiness goes hand in hand with economic development.

“One of the challenges we hear is ‘Do we have the workforce to support new industries and do we have the strong workforce pipeline that existing companies need?’” Walls said.

Of course, industrial plants are some of Duke’s largest electric customers — particularly the Evergreen paper mill. When machines go offline, Duke loses money, too.

To that end, Duke runs its own economic development arm — from a team of business liaisons courting new companies to locate in the state to grants for community-specific economic development initiatives. The investment pays back.

“When there are good jobs, there is a strong economy,” Walls said.

And a strong economy eventually means more electricity sales. 

Leave a comment

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.