Area High Schoolers use machining skills to help disabled

Seventy Chicago area high school students recently used their machining skills to help disabled individuals walk again. 

Streamwood High School’s manufacturing and engineering teacher, Matt Erbach, accepted a challenge by Alabamabased program “SKY” (Skilled Knowledgeable Youth) that works with other high schools on projects that benefit others. 

SKY’s “Life Changer Initiative” project provided Streamwood High students an opportunity to serve their fellow humans by using skills they’re learning in their machining courses. 

Having a part in making prosthetic limbs was a perfect project for Erbach’s Generation Z students that are particularly interested in promoting social welfare. 

Chickasaw High School in Alabama started the project by 3-D printing the parts but needed help creating the prosthetic limbs’ metal components. Erbach said he knew his advanced manufacturing students would be able to do the metalworking needed. 

Streamwood students would make 100 leg bone assemblies made up of two pieces: a central solid rod and the tube that surrounds it. The needed metal pivoting pins would be made by high schoolers in Candor, New York. 

Erbach shared how the demand for the artificial limbs was dramatically growing. “They had 44 people trying to get limbs at their first stop of four they had planned. That first stop would have cleaned them out for the entire trip,” Erbach said. “The limbs they had with them would have fit everybody there, but there would have been nothing for anybody else on any other locations they had planned to visit. The demand had gone up, and they were at capacity.” 

When Erbach saw the needed metal part samples firsthand, he reached out to TMA member OTTO Engineering, which has graciously donated scrap metal pieces to Streamwood over the years for use in their classes. John Lang of OTTO Engineering worked with Erbach to get the steel bars the students would need for the “Life Changer Initiative” project. 

Erbach said while the blueprint was understandable and doable, the students had to “self-tolerance” the parts to make them usable. But that wasn’t all the adjustments that had to be made, he said. “We could set up individual workstations and do the project in a very traditional manual way. But the students were aware pretty much from the get-go that we needed to make CNC machines do as much of this as possible,” the 16-year veteran teacher said. 

Erbach’s advanced class set up the fixturing workout, the tool paths and shifted the models from SolidWorks to Fusion 360. He was very proud of the work his students did without complaint. 

“It really was their show,” Erbach said. “I did very, very little. I got the materials, I made sure they had the the cutters and the tools and the the parts they needed. But when it came to designing the fixturing, setting it up and running it, they did most of it.” 

Erbach said his students were energized and excited throughout the weeks they worked on the project. While his students love to participate in machining competitions such as TMA’s annual Precision Machining Competition, this project was different. It made the students focus on helping the needy rather than competing against others. 

Leigh McConnell, TMA’s Director of Training & Education, was especially delighted to learn of how the Streamwood High students were so engaged in using their skills to help others. TMA’s Education Foundation helped Streamwood upgrade their metrology tools and helped them to finance students’ participation in the annual Skills USA competition, she said. 

“It is not easy to place value on programs like these – how they keep students engaged and keep them excited about the ways they can help others with the skills they are learning. The passion and commitment the projects produce is amazing,” McConnell said. 

“Add to that the positive outreach to the community to help with materials speaks volumes about instructors like Matt Erbach and others. I don’t know what the world would look like without them,” she said. 

To hear more of the conversation with Matt Erbach, check out the recent interview on

Featured in TMA’s Jan/Feb 2023 News Bulletin