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At first glance, stacks of foam scattered throughout the warehouse headquarters of Oregon Aero were tough for a group of students from Portland's Benson Polytechnic High School to get excited about, until they realized that the material surrounding them was used in everything from an airplane seat that doubled as a flotation device and saved a man's life, to the shock-absorbing insole in Michael Jordan's basketball shoes.
Students toured the facility Friday, Oct. 6, as part of National Manufacturing Day, an annual event that aims to get students interested in careers based in manufacturing.
Tony Erickson, chief operating officer of Oregon Aero, held up a small package of headset inserts as he recalled his company's history.
Founder Mike Dennis' wife, Jude, informed her husband she didn't care to fly with him because the headset she wore in the copilot's seat gave her headaches. Dennis set out to design a more comfortable headset for his wife and eventually, he did just that. The product proved so useful he sold hundreds of pairs. That was nearly 30 years ago and the company continues to sell headset upgrades.
The turning point for the company came in 1995, when an Oregon Aero-designed aircraft seat in a C-130 military plane accidentally proved to be a life-saving device, after a deadly plane crash off the coast of California.
The sole surviving passenger of the crash was able to wade through the ocean, thanks to the foam inside the seat, until he was eventually spotted and rescued, Erickson said.
"He had to fight off sharks and everything until they finally found him," Erickson said. Erickson said when news outlets picked up the story of the lone survivor, the military immediately granted approval for the installation of those same seats in all C-130 planes.
"We didn't design it to float on purpose," Erickson said, "but after this happened we gathered up all our cushions for military aircraft and threw them all in the deep end of Eisenschmidt Pool."
Designing seat planes is now at the core of the aviation-based company's business.
"Our goal is to make it the most comfortable item that somebody has, whether it's on your head, you're sitting in it, or it's for utility," Joe Louie, engineering manager for Oregon Aero, told students Friday.
The Scappoose-based company customizes soft foam products primarily used in seats for small aircraft.
Many of the students who got a firsthand look at Oregon Aero's processes are headed toward career paths in engineering and manufacturing.
Sara Jones is a senior at Benson Polytechnic. She's the only girl in her senior manufacturing program.
Jones said her grandfather attended Benson Polytechnic "back when it was still an all boys school," and her uncle also attended.
"I want to get more into welding," Jones said Friday. "Last year I had tendinitis in my shoulder cuff, so I actually learned how to weld with my left hand."
Jones said she chose Benson because she wanted to gain a skillset while earning her high school diploma.
"I wanted to get into something I could take into my job, but also the real world," she explained.
One of her instructors, Barth Clooten, says the polytechnic school gives students a more workforce-based learning approach.
"The students really have to have a desire to be at this school," Clooten said. "You're giving them the option to pick career choices."
The Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership estimates the industry will need to replace 30,000 manufacturing jobs by 2022 due to retirements and industry growth.
During Friday's tour, Erickson and Louie showed students different factory machines, from precision cutters to saws, and even the rudimentary tools.
In a room stacked with storage racks, Alice Eaton and Kyra Brinster used electric carving knives — the same kind used to carve a Thanksgiving turkey — to slice into and shape foam molds for seats.
Erickson gave a quick lesson on efficiency and utility, reminding students that making a product is useless, no matter how well it works, if no one can afford it.
Friday's student tour was one of 60 across the Portland-Vancouver region.
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