August 30, 2012
Kohler High School’s Engineering Club captured the attention of the Milwaukee Brewers, the MLB Network, and thousands of others with its Miller Park replica grill.
How did a high school engineering club from Wisconsin capture the attention of the Milwaukee Brewers, the MLB Network, the entire state, plus thousands of others? It built a kick-ass replica grill of Miller Park, of course!
Folks in Wisconsin love four things in this order: the Green Bay Packers, a good bratwurst, the Brewers, and a well-made batch of cheese curds. The rest is just fluff. Combining any of the following whips the Badger State into a frenzy that rivals the NFL playoffs, hunting season, or Oktoberfest.
Kohler is a small community with deep manufacturing roots. It is home to Kohler Company, a manufacturer of sinks, toilets, bathtubs, faucets, and other plumbing fixtures. During World War II the company changed over some of its lines to fabricate parts for the B-17 bomber—an aircraft that now serves as the high school’s mascot.
The Kohler High School Engineering Club, headed by Dave Debruin, has seen its share of success in a relatively short amount of time. Debruin started the club as a way to introduce parents and kids to all the facets of manufacturing.
“Kohler is an affluent community, and parents want to see their kids go to college. That’s wonderful, but I wanted to make sure they saw that taking shop courses could be beneficial too,” Debruin said.
So three years ago he started the Engineering Club. In such a small school that, according to Debruin, fields a little more than 400 students from Pre-K through 12th grade, the Engineering Club is relatively popular. Last year 36 students belonged. To shed some perspective, the graduating class of 2012 was about 28 kids.
Not long after the club started, Lake Shore Technical College approached Debruin to enter Project GRILL, an acronym for Growing Readiness in Learning and Leading (GRILL). For this venture, six high schools and six area manufacturing companies in Sheboygan County partner up to design, fabricate, and assemble a grill. Schools cannot pick the company that they work with. Debruin said that his club doesn’t decide upon a theme until they know which company they are partnered with, because each company has different strengths.
A typical Project GRILL takes the entire school year to complete. In its first year, the club designed and fabricated a replica B-17 bomber grill made of stainless steel that was 22 ft. long with a 16-ft. wing span. The grills are in the wings, and the fuselage opens to reveal two separate coolers. In its second year the club built an atomic bomb rotisserie grill made out of heavy steel.
“The thing with the Engineering Club is, it doesn’t happen during the day. It’s not a class. I hold my meetings every other Wednesday on my lunch hour. The work is done either before or after school, during lunch, or during study hall if I’m available. It takes all year and it’s completed after hours.”
The club is known for its over-the-top designs, and this year was no different.
The concept of a Miller Park replica came during a phone conversation Debruin had with the owner of a local stamping company, Kapco Inc., which sponsors the Brewers. The owner called to inquire about purchasing the school’s B-17 bomber grill. That grill was not for sale, so Debruin suggested a replica of Miller Park, which the owner liked.
But it was a no-go if the students didn’t buy in.
“I didn’t want to force it on the kids, but I threw the idea out there at our first brainstorming session after we found out who our sponsor was. They loved it.”
Plus, added Debruin, the club wanted to market and sell the grill, with the proceeds going toward buying more equipment so that in future years they can do more and more of the fabricating in-house. Fabricating a replica grill of Wisconsin’s second-favorite pastime—behind the Packers—would only increase their chances of selling it.
The grill was designed completely by the club members. Vollrath, the club’s partnering company, helped out with designing the grill’s retractable roof. Debruin said he and the students spent a lot of time figuring out sizes and dimension and analyzing the logistics of Miller Park. When that was finished, they constructed a crude mockup to scale out of cardboard. From there they created another mockup, a ¼ scale of the 1⁄1,000 scale.
“We did that with all the proper bends. We knew that since we were selling it, we couldn’t leave any sharp edges or hot spots. That mockup showed every aspect of the interior.”
The interior included two different heat barrier brakes and insulation to make sure nothing but the retractable roof is hot. Underneath the retractable roof is the cooking surface. The “building” itself sits on a rectangular trailer with two sunken coolers on the ends.
“We wanted to visualize how each piece would fit together. As the stainless steel started getting expensive, we knew we didn’t want to bend a piece the wrong way and have to scrap it out.”
Students did most of their own welding, most of their own cutting—except for a few pieces that were laser cut by Vollrath—and assembling. Vollrath set them up with a contact that makes vinyl decals for food carts in major sports arenas.
“Our thing was we wanted to do it ourselves.
“Ninety-nine percent of it the kids learned in school.”
The little details are where the students flexed their creative muscles, and once the grill began to take shape, the ideas came fast and furious.
A senior student suggested they include Brewers logos in sequential order from past to present, and another senior suggested they use a baseball and a baseball bat for the handles.
No one, including Debruin, was prepared for the fanfare that this grill generated. The MLB Network show “Intentional Talk” mentioned it on air, and now the Milwaukee Brewers are interested in purchasing it, as is Kapco. The buzz generated is just icing on the cake for Debruin, who three years ago set out to prove that manufacturing can be worthwhile and interesting. Home run, Mr. Debruin.
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