Heavy Metal

College Skill Center Offers State-of-the-Art Training

Story and photos by Rodger Nichols

Robert Wells-Clark explains some of the processes available on the VF3 machine at the Columbia Gorge Community College skill center.

Robert Wells-Clark is the director of technology and trades at Columbia Gorge Community College in The Dalles. Every day, he works with machines that were the very stuff of science fiction and fantasy in his youth.

The college’s skill center is home to metal 3-D printers and complex multi-tool lathes and mills capable of machining a complete engine block out of a solid chunk of metal.

Robert has had a love of metalworking since high school when he became a certified welder through a college program that worked with his high school in Grant’s Pass.

“I started welding and tube-bending for roll cages and got involved in the automobile industry,” he says.

After earning a degree at the University of Oregon, Robert attended Lewis & Clark College to get a master’s degree in teaching.

“I carried a full-time job all the way through college,” he says. “I was mostly doing roll cage fabrication and then periodically doing automotive technician work. I ended up getting my ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certification and worked on maintenance and light repair, but always with the undercurrent of being tied to it through fabrication more so than anything else.”

Robert met his wife, Meagan, at U of O. It was she who suggested Robert get his master’s degree.

“We decided that wherever 1 of us got a job in the Northwest, we’d move there,” he says. “She got a job with Mid-Columbia Medical Center. She’s a medical social worker and travels all over with the traveling health care group, which connects people to services and other cool stuff.”

The VF-3 milling center has a large enough capacity that an entire engine block could fit inside it. It comes with 31 different cutting tool bits that can be automatically switched during the machining process.

Robert switched his emphasis from fabrication to teaching when they arrived in The Dalles.

“I started substituting, and eventually got a job teaching automotive technology at The Dalles High School,” he says. “Then about 8 years ago, the college approached me, asking if I was interested in teaching welding to prepare students for local jobs.”

For the next 6 years, Robert taught full-time at the high school and half-time at the community college. He arrived at the high school between 7 and 7:30 a.m. 2 to 3 days a week, depending on the term, he taught at the college until 7 p.m.

“It was an insane time, but it really laid the groundwork for what we’re doing today,” he says.

Columbia Gorge Community College had a comprehensive welding program, but it grew exponentially with the construction of a 19,000-square-foot skills center in 2020.

“We wanted to make sure we were doing justice in introducing students to more modern technologies and giving them an opportunity to cast a broad net for employment after they leave here,” Robert says. “In the last 10 to 15 years in particular, computer-aided design and computer numerically controlled manufacturing has reduced scrap and increased product quality and productivity.”

The lab boasts 6 mini-mills, each the size of a small car standing on end.

“These are 3-axis milling centers where you start with a block of material and you cut it down,” Robert says. “We do a lot of aluminum, steel, and stainless steel, but we have also machined plastics and composites. We’ve done some magnesium as well, which is a little interesting due to its flammability.”

The lab also includes a milling center that operates on a 4th axis and 1 that has 5 axes. This allows the machine to be able to work on more sides of a part without being reset.

“Instead of just being able to rotate the part, it can also tilt and rotate the part on an A, B, and C axis,” Robert says. “It’s a little more complicated to program, but a lot of the work that we’ve been doing lately has been directly working with small businesses in our region. Having that available for them as well as for our students is a real big bonus.”

Robert clarifies that these innovations are not just available to students. Community members can also access the lab.

“We want to facilitate innovation and incubate small businesses within manufacturing,” he says. “We have a number of individuals who come to use our equipment who have a product or design that they’re doing themselves to prototype to bring to market. And many times, we’ll have companies come to us and say, ‘Hey, we’re sending these to Southern California to get cut and they cost us about $10,000.’ We can end up doing it for $500 or $600. Our students end up doing that work, and the return on investment if they buy that machine and hire 1 of our students is really pretty good.”

Every Friday, the center opens its doors to the public.

“It’s for free if you are a local small business or are looking to start one,” Robert says. “We also have a community education class on Fridays. For $200, you can get 11 weeks of curated access for 8 hours a day, and we will put you in front of this million-and-a-half dollars worth of equipment to learn on.”

Robert says the main message he wants the public to know is the college is local and available.

“We want to help if we can, in a way that’s noncompetitive with our local businesses,” he says. “We’re here to assist workforce development, incubate small businesses and innovate within our region for just the betterment of the economic development of our whole area.”