Welding simulators to expand education at Franklin Tech and beyond

  • Student Breanna Kempf uses a welding simulator at Franklin County Technical School. This simulator had previously been donated to the school and is less up-to-date than the eight simulators acquired in December. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Instructor John Passiglia supervises student Breanna Kempf as she uses a welding simulator at Franklin County Technical School. This simulator had previously been donated to the school and is less up-to-date than the eight simulators acquired in December. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 1/23/2023 3:25:58 PM
Modified: 1/23/2023 3:25:31 PM

TURNERS FALLS — Welding students at Franklin County Technical School and beyond will soon be joining more than just pieces of steel with a half-million-dollar investment that is set to fuse the real and the imaginary.

Come next school year, the school will have eight state-of-the-art welding simulators in action, following a $246,000 contract agreement with welding supply company Airgas. This purchase, authorized during a Jan. 11 School Committee meeting, was made under the umbrella of a $499,999 million 2023 Skills Capital state grant that will also fund the purchase of a trailer and a Ford F-350 pickup truck. Together, the school intends to assemble the simulators, trailer and truck into a mobile welding lab that will service not only those enrolled at the high school, but the broader community.

Superintendent Rick Martin clung to optimism that the grant would be awarded in 2022, repeatedly expressing excitement about the prospect of making the mobile welding lab a reality during School Committee and subcommittee meetings. He explained that acquiring the simulators would benefit the school in a variety of ways, such as by reducing metal waste, saving space, and perhaps most significantly, cutting the cost of ordering materials.

“The most expensive stock for us is the stock held for welding and it’s almost quadrupled in price,” Martin told the Building and Grounds Subcommittee last year.

The simulators function using a screen-equipped welding mask and a welding “torch” linked to a console. Once masked-up, the student faces an apparatus equipped with one of many interchangeable panels shaped to mimic pieces of metal in need of welding. The student then calibrates their position with that of the panel, which appears as a hyper-realistic steel beam via the mask’s display. The simulator then guides the student with graphics as they press the torch to the panel and hold down the trigger. The simulation feels strikingly authentic.

“If you can do it on the simulator, you could go right to welding within 10 minutes,” Martin said last year, stressing that shifting training toward “augmented reality” welding — and eventually back to real welding — would be virtually seamless. “It’s that real. … I tried it myself. I couldn’t believe it.”

“I think it’s going to be pretty cool to introduce people to welding without them having to put the gloves on and be intimidated by heat, sparks, smoke and electricity,” commented welding instructor Lorin Burrows.

Franklin Tech received its eight simulators in December. Two of the school’s eight simulators will be kept stationary in the in-school lab, along with 25 to 30 smaller handheld simulators that will be ordered within the next few months, Martin said. The remaining six simulators will be installed in the trailer, which is being custom-built by Maine’s Northeast Custom Trailers. The school will “definitely have it by the summer,” Martin assured.

Aside from housing the simulators, the trailer “is going to pop” from a visual standpoint as another way of attracting those who might want to step inside, Martin said. The exterior will be extravagantly painted with flames and bright graphics. Decorative LED lights will adorn the interior, while windows will let in natural light from above. The trailer’s contents will all be powered by a generator built into the unit that will allow eight to 12 hours of runtime at full capacity.

“It’s really to get kids excited about it when you pull up in front of a facility,” Martin said of the trailer’s appearance.

Martin said he believes that once assembled, the school’s trailer will be the only portable welding lab in New England. He doesn’t take the unique value of the lab lightly, expressing not only a sense of duty, but a strong desire to assist the broader region. A priority for the welding program will be to extend services to the Franklin County Jail and House of Correction. Martin said the school eventually intends to train an instructor that would teach incarcerated people how to weld in the lab.

“It’s important for us to partner with our community and partner with those who are in desperate need of developing skills that could potentially get them employed down the road,” Martin said, adding that he has already spoken with the House of Correction about a partnership. “There’s not a lot of opportunity for those in secure lockup to develop competency-based skills that increase their ability to get employment.”

Beyond that, he said, the trailer’s potential is near limitless.

“It’s on wheels,” Martin said. “It can go anywhere.”

Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-930-4231 or jmendoza@recorder.com.


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