Grand opening for the Robert W. Plaster Center for Advanced Manufacturing at OTC. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

To demonstrate the capabilities of some of the high-tech machinery newly available to students at the grand opening of the $40 million Robert W. Plaster Center for Advanced Manufacturing at Ozarks Technical Community College, Robert Wise selected two easily understood items to fabricate — a bust of an eagle and a fidget spinner. 

Wise, OTC’s manufacturing lab manager, was standing in front of a five-axis computer numerical tool (CNC) machine as it precisely followed instructions he’d inputted to sculpt an eagle head. He’d secured a small brick of aluminum in the machine about 12 minutes prior, and now it was a replica of the school mascot. The eagles and the fidget spinners being made one station over were the first devices these machines had been tasked with crafting.

“But,” Wise said. “This is just the beginning.”

On Monday, hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the unveiling of the Plaster Manufacturing Center, a $40 million facility built through a public-private partnership. Voters in 2018 approved a 5-cent increase to the OTC tax levy to support the construction of the center, which OTC president Hal Higdon has touted as a path toward high-paying skilled jobs for students and as a way to address workforce shortages in manufacturing-related industries in Southwest Missouri. 

“There’s something to be said that the SRCs and the Positronics are here today,” said Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Greene County. “Because they know that facilities like this are how we are going to turn out the graduates that they need to employ.”

Plaster Manufacturing Center offers more opportunities for OTC students

David Kronberg is a Navy veteran who was able to attend OTC to get a precision machining technology certificate at no cost. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

To help lead demonstrations of some of the precision machinery during the center’s grand opening, instructor Chad Viele invited students to explain what they learned at OTC. One of the students, David Kronberg, shared how that knowledge was being applied as line after line of code raced up a computer screen on the CNC machine he stood by. Each line represented a precise instruction in the steps needed to shape half a dozen aluminum fidget spinners at once. 

A Navy vet who recently earned his precision machining technology from OTC, Kronberg said he learned enough during his first three months in the year-long program to make a sizeable investment in his Branson-based custom truck lift business. He drove to Virginia last year and paid about $10,000 to drive a lower-grade CNC machine home with him. Since then, he’s bought another one to help him ramp up his production at Cornfed Suspension

“I learned so much (at OTC) that’s been so beneficial, and really opened some new opportunities for myself and my business,” he said. 

While he was learning how to operate equipment he would eventually buy for himself, Kronberg said he watched as fellow students in the precision machining program improved their lots in life.  

“I have a classmate of mine, stepped out of a one-year certificate program into industry making 25 bucks an hour at 20 years old,” he said. “There are a lot of people with four-year college degrees that aren’t making that money. And he has the skill set to go to the moon with it.”

The Plaster Manufacturing Center, Viele said, offers more technical college students more opportunities. Much of the center’s 120,000 square feet houses machinery and tech to address workforce needs. Seven OTC technical training programs will be housed at the center, including automation and robotics; cybersecurity; drafting and design; information technology infrastructure; manufacturing technology; mechatronics; and precision machining. 

“My goal in teaching all my students — and David’s a great example — is to expose them to enough to get their confidence level up to where they know they can accomplish anything,” Viele said. “They can take on anything, learn anything. Exposing them to as many different types of technologies and different situations as possible gives them the confidence to step into industry positions and face challenges and things that they might have been intimidated by previously if they hadn’t had an opportunity to at least see something similar to it.”

Center to serve as training grounds for major area employers

What was once a chunk of metal is now a work of art. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

In choosing the equipment for the technical programs housed at the Plaster Manufacturing Center, Wise said you have to look at where students are likely to go once they’ve trained at OTC. Some of those potential employers, like St. Louis-based Emerson, contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars toward the center’s development. 

“Our goal is simple — to help train and prepare the next generation technical worker for employment and manufacturing companies like Emerson in our region,” said Keith Calhoun, manager of the manufacturing plant that invested $500,000 in the center. “Our facilities in Lebanon and Ava utilize over 350 robots in the manufacturing process. The automation we use in our facilities has never been greater. Therefore, the skillset and training needed to help our technicians be successful in the installation, troubleshooting and maintenance of automation processes, is critical to our success.” 

After gear for all seven technical programs was accounted for, the center still also had about 15,000 square feet of open space. That space was where hundreds gathered to celebrate the center’s opening on Monday. Soon it will be occupied by manufacturing equipment belonging to DT Engineering. The Lebanon-based automation and tooling company will use the center’s dedicated Industry Partner Space to open up shop in Springfield. Higdon said he hopes it will never be vacant enough to hold a similar ceremony again. 

In his remarks about the Plaster Center, he took time to tout the Missouri Fast Track workforce incentive grant program, which is designed to make sure tuition and fees are covered for adults to earn degrees or certificates that address workforce needs. 

“So if you’re watching this today, if you’re a business owner, and you have training needs, and you have employees who fit that bill, call me,” Higdon said, before offering to connect them with the right people at the new Plaster Manufacturing Center.

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson