Southeast High School students combine high-tech skills with a big-heart mission

Southeast High School students start their own business

Southeast High School students are developing their own manufacturing machines, which includes machines making machines. Their efforts are getting the attention of major players in the technology world.
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Southeast High School students are developing their own manufacturing machines, which includes machines making machines. Their efforts are getting the attention of major players in the technology world.

Growing up as a child in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan often means the simplest joys of owning a toy either have been outlawed under Taliban control, or the scarcity of such minor luxuries simply doesn’t exist.

A group of Southeast High School students has a chance to change that and has partnered with the 101st Airborne Division to supply its soldiers with 1,000 wooden toy cars a month.

The soldiers will carry a few cars with them and hand them to Afghan children and other children wherever the Screaming Eagles are deployed.

Reaching that goal presented a problem, even with expensive equipment capable of making the toys inside Richard Platt’s technology lab classroom.

Instead of seeing a problem, Platt and his students saw a solution and a broader opportunity.

Their solution caught the attention of Vint Cerf, vice president of Google, who is recognized as one of the fathers of the Internet. Cerf spent 20 minutes with the students via Skype on Wednesday.

Cerf was impressed with the direction of Southeast’s new Student Engineering and Entrepreneurship Program (SIMP). He offered $16,000 to pay for a teacher’s assistant to free up Platt to dedicate more time to his SIMP students.

The meeting was arranged by Spark Growth founders Stan Schultes and Sara Hand of the Station 2 Innovation Center.

Schultes said while American manufacturing has seen losses over the past decade, it is on the cusp of being reinvigorated. Schultes said, from his experience in business incubation and travels abroad, the world remains envious of American ingenuity when it comes to developing manufacturing processes.

“They all want American innovation,” Schultes said.

Southeast High business MY 2
Southeast High School teacher Richard Platt and Student Engineering and Entrepreneurship Program student John Ferguson watch one of their creations in action. The students in the program, along with Platt have started a business that makes machines that makes machines as an effort to not only improve their community service goals, but to significantly reduce the costs of American manufacturing. Mark Young

Essentially, the students are making machines that make machines while using the latest software to make it happen. Their $15,000 high-tech machine that was purchased for the classroom years ago isn’t quick enough to meet the 1,000 cars a month quota for the 101st Airborne Division and it’s expensive to repair. That is what ultimately started this quest.

Platt said if the machine’s controller goes down, it would cost $3,000 to replace – if he was lucky enough to find a matching piece.

So Platt and his students built their own machine for $874 and it outproduces the $15,000 model. What they call a first-generation model was only a first step.

Generation two will be made out of steel and they estimate they can go from building 424 toy cars in two weeks (during school time only) to 750 a week. The next step is to complete the manufacturing process by allowing a fully automated system to run the operation 24 hours a day.

So they built a robotic arm, too.

The arm will take over the final stage of manual labor by removing the cars and replacing the wood, very much like an automated assembly line. Everything is designed, built and coded by Platt and the students.

The SIMP program, under Platt, has started a business called I Am Solutions, or Industrial Automated Solutions. The goal is to sell their machines to other schools and to keep the costs low to further enhance and spread the SIMP program.

Southeast high business MY 3
Toy cars roll off what will be an actual assembly line of manufacturing that Southeast High School Student Engineering and Entrepreneurship Program students are developing. The cars are heading to the 101st Airborne Division soldiers stationed in Afghanistan to give to local to children who have never before played with toys. Mark Young

An investment company reviewed what the program was doing and brought two companies back for further talks. One was a $20 million a year drone business and the other was I Am Solutions. The company can dramatically help in mass producing the school’s product.

“The first place we are going to put it is in Manatee Schools and then after that, there are 60,000 secondary schools in the United States,” Platt said. “All of them can acquire these machines through what is called the Perkins Grant with federal dollars to put them in their labs and they can maintain them. You have a $1,200 robot versus a $15,000 machine. If ours breaks down, you can get the parts on Amazon. We are also going to open source every component on this, all of it.”

I Am Solutions will offer blueprints for sale for schools that want to buy the plans and build it themselves, as well as instructional videos in how to build and maintain the machines. Platt said that resolves another issue.

Southeast High business MY 4
Students in the Southeast High School Student Engineering and Entrepreneurship Program work the plasma cutter as part of their overall training in high-tech manufacturing. Executive Director of Adult, Career and Technical Education Doug Wagner was instrumental in starting the program at Southeast and it is those students that will help spread the program across the Manatee County School District with their innovative work. Mark Young

“A big problem we have in our schools today is you buy something like that expensive machine, the teacher leaves or retires and the teacher coming in doesn’t know how to run it. We want to solve that problem with online instruction,” he said.

The profits will pay for college scholarships for SIMP students. The Southeast High SIMP students building a ground-breaking legacy are Zac Morris, John Ferguson, Anthony Sevarino and Albert Ales.

Morris said their current project in working with the 101st is something the students wanted to do, “that will help lower U.S. casualties. Not everyone agrees with the interests we have in foreign countries, but if there is anything we can help do to lower U.S. casualties and help change the mindset of those kids, then that’s global community service.”

Each car is stamped, “Made in the U.S.A. Southeast High School.”