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Lawrence Armstrong, a lead operator at the packaging and shipping facility of Lonza's Charleston, Tenn., plant, talks to Walker Valley High School students about the use of robotics and other technology in modern manufacturing. The students toured the site on Friday in conjunction with Cleveland Associated Industries' participation in National Manufacturing Day.

CHARLESTON, Tenn. - About 100 Walker Valley High School sophomores got a taste of the modern industrial workplace when they visited chemical plants near Charleston, Tenn., on Friday as part of Cleveland Associated Industries' observation of National Manufacturing Day.

Two busloads of students took guided tours of facilities operated by Olin and Lonza and also spoke with Wacker Chemie representatives.

"Olin, Lonza and Wacker are excited to introduce the world of manufacturing to Walker Valley sophomores," said Lisa Pickel, executive director of CAI. "This is a great opportunity to inspire a new generation of manufacturers and dispel outdated myths regarding manufacturing."

Students said the site tours were a way for them to explore future careers.

"I'm very interested in engineering," Lachlan Baker said. "I thought this would be a good opportunity to see this side of the manufacturing job."

The importance of manufacturing to the national economy cannot be underestimated, said Tom Wilkerson, plant manager for Lonza.

"Manufacturing is a big deal to the United States," Wilkerson told one tour group, noting that President Barack Obama was visiting an industrial site in Indiana as part of National Manufacturing Day events.

During the tours, company personnel explained the kinds of available careers, many of which are technological and require a team mindset, analytical thinking and mathematics skills.

"While technological improvements are important, the real success of Lonza is the people," said Mark Riedel, production manager. "We need people with good heads on their shoulders who want us to succeed."

During the Lonza tour, the Walker Valley sophomores watched robot-driven shipping and packing processes that stacked sealed buckets of chemical products three-high on a pallet, which then was conveyed to an automated plastic wrapping station.

The robotic handlers have helped reduce wear and tear on employees, who used to have to load and stack the heavy chemical containers by hand, said Charlie Caudill, environmental health and safety manager for the plant.

In Lonza's maintenance and engineering department, the sophomores had a chance to get up close and personal with assorted tools and even try on a high-voltage protective suit and a welding mask.

National Manufacturing Day is another important component to local work-based learning initiatives, said Arlette Robinson, director of career and technical education for Bradley County Schools, in a recent discussion with federal education officials at Walker Valley High School.

Students from two other local high schools -- Bradley Central and Cleveland -- will tour local industrial partners later in October, Pickel said.

Cleveland High School students will visit Mars, P&G, Cormetech and Flowers Bakery on Oct. 22 and Bradley Central High School will go to Mueller, Whirlpool, Advanced Photographic Solutions and Eaton Electrical on Oct. 23, she said.

Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Email him at