Engineering Students Gaining On-the-Job Experience
By Jill Gambon
Ray Weatherby, director of imaging and CAD Engineering for fast-growing medical device manufacturer ConforMIS, was facing a challenge. The company,
which makes custom-designed implants for knee replacements, needed a steady stream of qualified engineers to support its rapid growth. To find the talent ConforMIS needed, Weatherby turned to local engineering programs.
Already familiar with UMass Lowell through several alumni coworkers, Weatherby contacted the Office of Career Services and Cooperative Education, which had recently launched its co-op program with the Francis College of Engineering. Under the co-op initiative, students are matched with employers for three- or six-month placements to get hands-on, professional experience. It was just what Weatherby was looking for.
From that initial phone call late in 2010, a successful partnership has flourished. Bedford-based ConforMIS has so far hired two plastic engineering students for co-op jobs and added alumni to the ranks of its full-time employees. Participating in job fairs, networking events and co-op seminar panels, ConforMIS representatives have brought their business insight to campus. In the process, the company has made a name for itself among young, in-demand engineers and created a pipeline of potential employees for its expanding business.
“What’s striking about this is how both ConforMIS and UMass Lowell kicked off programs at the same time and were going through similar experiences,” Weatherby says. “The experience with UMass Lowell has exceeded our expectations.”
“Our partnership with ConforMIS is exactly how things are supposed to work,” says Diane Hewitt, the University’s director of cooperative education. “The company is really interested in building a relationship with the University, not just in filling co-op placements.”
A New Approach to an Old Problem
ConforMIS was founded in 2004 to develop treatments for osteoarthritis and joint damage. Using an innovative approach, ConforMIS designs and manufactures personalized implants and surgical instrumentation based on each patient’s computed tomography (CT) scans. The made-to-order implants simplify the surgery, reduce the amount of bone or tissue that is removed and allow patients to recover more quickly than traditional, off-the-shelf knee replacements, the company says.
Within six weeks of receiving a patient’s scans, ConforMIS designs, manufactures and ships the implants and instrumentation that precisely match the patient’s anatomy. The materials are sent to the hospital in a single box, 8 inches tall by 17 inches wide, smaller than a typical carry-on travel bag. The instrumentation (made through a three-dimensional printing process) is disposable and replaces the multi-tiered carts of sterilized surgical tools traditionally found in operating rooms.
“Our entire business model is different. It’s efficient,” says Jong Lee, senior vice president for marketing and business strategy for the privately held firm.
Hands-on Experience for Student Engineers
Senior plastics engineering major Antonia Gruning is working at her second co-op job at ConforMIS as a computer-aided design (CAD) engineer. She was initially hired in May 2011 for a three-month job and when that ended she was offered a part-time position. That allowed her to continue gaining experience and earning money while taking classes. Using the SolidWorks 3-D CAD software that she learned during her sophomore year, she designs implants and instrumentation and reviews her peers’ work. “I love it here,” Gruning says.
Gruning’s responsibilities have grown over time. With the company’s rapid expansion, she has gained seniority on the staff and is now supervising other co-op students. The job has put her career goals in focus.
“I’d like to stay in the medical device industry, maybe doing research and development,” she says.
John Waszak, also a senior plastics engineering major, started a co-op job at ConforMIS at the same time as Gruning. He, too, continued working part-time after the co-op assignment ended.
“It was a great environment,” he says of the job, his first engineering position.
In addition to advancing his CAD skills, Waszak learned to collaborate and communicate with colleagues across a range of ages and backgrounds, which was one of the chief adjustments he had to make moving from campus to a corporate setting.
“You gain confidence over time,” he says.
The experience also helped prepare Waszak for a second co-op job at Corning Inc.’s life sciences division in Kennebunk, Maine during the summer of 2012.
A growing number of students are taking advantage of the co-op program, which has expanded to all engineering disciplines, the College of Sciences and the Manning School of Business. The program includes a professional development class to get students ready for the work world and an assessment seminar after they return to campus. For many students, the co-op jobs are a stepping stone to a full-time position.
“Almost everyone who participates in the co-op program has more robust career opportunities when they graduate,” Hewitt says.
Ready to Grow
Tom Faulkner, a ConforMIS CAD engineer who graduated in 2001, says the co-op students and young alumni coming from his alma mater arrive well prepared with technical and problem-solving skills.
“I like the enthusiasm that the young hires bring to the table. They bring ideas for design and process improvements,” he says.
The demand for skilled engineers at ConforMIS shows no signs of abating. The company is still hiring and recently moved into new facilities to accommodate the growing number of employees and expanding manufacturing operations.
UMass Lowell students and alumni continue to play a role in that growth. Today, there are 11 alumni in addition to Gruning who work in CAD manufacturing for the company.
“They roll up their sleeves and get the job done,” says Weatherby.
The successful relationship underscores the unique role that the University can play in helping industry thrive, says Hewitt.
“This partnership has been a model of how the University can work with innovative companies to help support economic development while creating exciting career opportunities for our students and alumni,” she says.