After watching molten iron being poured, cast and cooled, visitors to Dotson Iron Castings got to make their own molded metal souvenirs Thursday.
They cast tin instead of iron and it was only heated to 350 degrees instead of 2,800 degrees, but the process visitors used to make pumpkin-shaped trinkets were otherwise a small-scale example of the 3 million pieces of metal the 135-year-old foundry makes each year.
Dotson Iron and 15 other businesses from Waseca to New Ulm opened their doors to hundreds of students and community members Thursday as part of the 2016 Tour of Manufacturing.
South Central College also participated, hosting tours of its manufacturing preparatory programs.
The regional manufacturing showcase started about a decade ago, said Heather Gleason, South Central Workforce Council assistant director. The council helps organize the event.
To attract varied demographics, the tour alternates every other year on either a Thursday or a Saturday, Gleason said.
When it's held during the week, many area high schools send groups of students who are enrolled in engineering and manufacturing classes on the tour.
“They get to see the real-world application of what they are learning in the classroom,” Gleason said.
Approximately 200 students from both of Mankato's high schools visited three to four stops on the tour, including Dotson, Navitor and Johnson Outdoors.
Kim Mueller, the district's career and college readiness coordinator, said she hopes the business tours help students realize “the vast job opportunities available in manufacturing in Mankato.”
At Dotson, the students and teachers learned that starting wage for a foundry worker averages over $20 an hour. The company has 140 employees who make parts for 200 customers, including John Deere, Toro and North Mankato-based Mico Inc.
As they toured the foundry and computerized milling shop, visitors stopped at stations where employees provided brief demonstrations such as on the difference between milling and lay machinery.
Teachers from Mankato Public Schools college readiness program, AVID, also joined the student tours.
Teacher Toni Homes from East High School said the tours made her realize the “levels of science and math knowledge needed for jobs in manufacturing.”
The Mankato groups also visited Jones Metal, which employs 85 workers fabricating custom metal components for a variety of industries, including Kato Engineering and Caterpillar. Visitors saw how the company can cut, bend, weld and paint a variety of metals to precise specifications.
They saw workers making steel parts for a Navy nuclear submarine to the strictest of specifications. “This requires quality control like you couldn't believe,” company co-owner David Richards said.
The Jones Metal visitors saw new technologies such as multimillion-dollar laser cutter machines and a robotic arm that does welding.
While the processes have become increasingly automated, Richards said there is no shortage of manufacturing job opportunities. Humans are still irreplaceable for some tasks and are needed to program the computerized machines, he said.