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PTEC students build success piece by piece

Like blind men describing the elephant, the Pinellas Technical Education Center's precision machining students might have found it difficult to describe the bobsled that they worked on last year.

Except that PTEC students are taught early in their training to read a blueprint, so they knew how the individual parts they were making would eventually fit together.

And with each part they made _ rudders, shoes, rails, steering knuckles _ they invested something of themselves into former bobsledder Jay Knapp's dream of building a bobsled that just might give an American team the edge in the 1994 Winter Olympics.

It was exciting, the students said, to see the fully assembled red, white and blue sled emblazoned with a PTEC logo, on display last month in the lobby of the PTEC campus near Largo. They also were thrilled to hear that it had logged a better time than other sleds in time trials at Lake Placid, N.Y., earlier this year.

"It makes you feel good," said student Andrew Mitchell of St. Petersburg.

Mitchell, Rod Dermody of Largo and other advanced precision machining students worked long hours to produce steering linkages, the push bar, foot pegs, axles, special bolts and special wrenches for the prototype sled.

Knapp, who organized American Made Gold, a committee to oversee the construction of the bobsled, worked with Ron Berger, chairman of the precision machining department at PTEC's Largo campus. Berger in turn coordinated with instructors Alex Ditinno and Bob Burkart of the Largo campus and Larry Nitz of the St. Petersburg campus to build the sled parts.

Knapp contacted Berger for help.

"I was having some pieces made at a local manufacturer and he mentioned that he was working with some VICA (Vocational Industrial Clubs of America) students from PTEC. Since they were qualified . . . maybe they would be able to help us," Knapp said.

The advantages of working with PTEC students included the speed with which they completed the work and their flexibility, Knapp said.

Their work involved much blueprint reading and conversions.

"We were converting from metric to American standard (measurement)," Mitchell said. He said they measured down to ten-thousandths of an inch. "We had to work among ourselves to get parts to fit . . . and then check, does it fit, does it need to be that critical?"

PTEC's precision machining department is the best-equipped and largest shop in the country, said Berger, who, for 13 years has served as VICA adviser as well as precision machining department chairman.

Students learn conventional and high-tech precision machining at the center on sophisticated equipment.

"The average work station costs $10,000 to $11,000 and we have stations that cost as much as $83,000," Berger said.

Some equipment has been awarded to the department as a result of students' successes in national VICA competitions, he said.

Chris Lebeda, who has since graduated and works for Tredeger Molded Products in St. Petersburg, took a bronze medal in national competition last year. His award was $1,000 for himself and $10,000 in CNC computer software for the department.

Mark Binge, who competed this year, didn't make it to nationals, but "he's young, and he'll have a chance to go next time," Berger added. "This is the first time in many years that we haven't taken the state title."

Meanwhile, work moves forward on the bobsled.

The U.S. Olympic committee has scheduled trials for January and American Made Gold plans to be ready with a new and improved version.

"Basically what we're doing right now is documenting and analyzing what worked and what could be improved," Knapp said. "That will take us the rest of this month. Then we'll make new blueprints and go back and improve."

PTEC's precision machine shop has the capability to make "every nut and bolt. There's nothing that they couldn't do," Knapp added. "We would like to _ and I'm not ruling it out _ maybe incorporate even more, maybe get (PTEC's) body shop guys involved."

Several local companies also have worked on the sled, Knapp said, and at least three of the companies have PTEC students working for them, either in an apprenticeship program or through VICA, which helps to place students in part time positions while they're in school.

PTEC and its students have made a great contribution to the project, Knapp said.

"What we can't do . . . is put a financial burden on PTEC to supply us with the materials."

Mitchell sums it up for everyone involved.

"It would be nice to win," he said.

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