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CCCC student pursues manufacturing to make something from nothing

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Click to enlarge,  Photo by Michelle Bir, The Sanford Herald. David Thompson pursues his passion for making things as a machinist at Mertek Solutions.

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Photo by Michelle Bir, The Sanford Herald. David Thompson pursues his passion for making things as ... (more)

12.14.2016College & CommunityCollege GeneralStudents/Graduates

By Michelle Bir, The Sanford Herald

SANFORD - David Thompson ditched a desk-jockey job to explore the world of manufacturing. It was something in him "that rebels."

"I get to get up every morning, stand in front of a multi-ton machine with spinning blades of death," he said. "I don't like sitting on my butt for eight hours a day. We weren't made to do that."

Thompson, 36, a Pittsboro resident and father of two, graduated from N.C. State University with a degree in aerospace engineering. After working in that field, he decided to pursue a career in manufacturing. He currently works as a machinist and robotics apprentice at Mertek Solutions in Sanford.

"One of the difficulties that I had coming into this job is that in talking to people about it, most people considered it a step down," Thompson said. "They would say, 'You're an engineer -- why are you doing this? You're going to community college, you've already got an engineering degree.'"

Through his time as an engineer and student, he gained a lot of book knowledge but not the hands-on practical training he desired.

"By doing this, I am putting myself back outside of that consumer mindset and taking a look at what's important and the value of things again," he said. "The downside of living in a consumer economy is everyone consumes and forgets that these things actually have to come from somewhere."

Thompson is in the middle of his final year of classes at Central Carolina Community College. He goes to class in the morning and heads to Mertek in the afternoon to make parts for robots.

To hear him tell it, those robots can do "anything you can imagine."

"If you need someone to assemble a compact, we will make a robot to do that," he said. "If you need someone to pressure test engine lines, we can do that. If you need a fancy new machine to move equipment from point A to point B, or some stock moved from A to B, into one box out of another box, we do that."

Engineers draw up design for robots and whatever parts are unavailable to them must be made. Drawings are distributed to Thompson's supervisor and are handed down based on job priority, detailing the material the part must be made of, the dimensions and how closely the part must adhere to tolerances.

"Once you get the drawing and the rough material the first thing you do is size a block up," said Thompson. "You take the material and make sure all the sides are square, make sure it basically bounds out whatever it is that the part is going to be. From there, in broad terms, you start whacking away at it until the part you need comes out."

Thompson gained inspiration from Adam Savage of "MythBusters" and Mike Rowe of "Dirty Jobs." He said he gets to do work that "needs to be done," doing things that some people may not realize is essential, and he's learning to value what goes into those things.

"This is, in part, going back and finding work that needs to be done, that can be done by anyone and everyone," he said. "Few people understand the complexity of making that case for your OtterBox. I have put myself in a position to better understand and value the amount of effort that goes into these everyday parts."

The occupation can be dangerous and safety measures are important, Thompson said. But for him, it's "totally worth it."