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At CVTC, hoof trimmer becomes mechanical designer

Rick Heuer has already won a national competition for his work

Rick Heuer of Ellsworth used to design his own equipment on a piece of paper towel during a long career as a self-employed hoof trimmer in the dairy industry. Now he uses sophisticated computer-assisted design (CAD) programs to design robots and wins national competitions for his work.

Those are great results for a man who says he didn’t know a computer keyboard from a mouse when he started in Chippewa Valley Technical College’s Mechanical Design program two years ago.

Heuer, 60, of rural Ellsworth, was one of 757 graduates in 59 programs honored at a live virtual graduation celebration on CVTC’s Facebook page on Friday, May 15. The event included messages from president Bruce Barker and former Student Association president Rachael Winterling. The largest program was Nursing-Associated Degree with 101 graduates, followed by Business Management with 45 and Criminal Justice with 43. The in-person commencement ceremony will be held in conjunction with the summer graduation on July 30.

“My whole life, I was a manufacturing type of person,” Heuer said. “All of my own equipment I designed and built for myself.”

That seemingly hidden ability, and the help of patient CVTC instructors, explains the unlikely story of how a man whose main career consisted of trimming the hooves of dairy cattle could turn into an award-winning mechanical designer in two years.

“I was like a lot of young people when I graduated from high school,” Heuer said. “After 12 years of school, I wanted to be out of school. I just wanted to go out and milk cows.”

He worked as an artificial inseminator before becoming a self-employed hoof trimmer. But he had an innate intelligence and some valuable experience.

“I had a lot of metal working experience,” he said. “I could weld when I was 10 years old, and I could read blueprints before I was in high school.”

Those plans he drew up on a piece of paper towel included a device that turns a cow on its side so he could trim all four hooves quickly and safely. It’s still in the back of his truck.

“I’m not as physically capable as I used to be,” Heuer said. “And the dairy economy isn’t doing so well. I wanted something where I could use my brain instead of my back.”

Mechanical Design was a natural choice for Heuer, starting with no computer skills was a big obstacle. But CVTC has people who work one-on-one with students like Heuer. Holly Hassemer, an adult education instructor who is now dean of Academic Services, worked closely with Rick. “Holly spent just about every day with me in the first semester,” Heuer said.

“One thing I admire about Rick is his ‘can-do’ attitude,” said Hassemer. “When he took Physics online, Rick put aside any uncertainties he had and plunged into the work. He worked incredibly hard—watching instructional videos, taking copious notes and communicating with his teacher. It was clear that he was proud in his ability to understand this theoretical content and he saw his abilities expanding through his hard work.”

In his second semester, Heuer was part of a team that placed first in the American Technical Education Association (ATEA) 3D Futures Competition for a project called the Kara Learning Robot, which demonstrated how robotic mechanisms learn from each other.

When the ATEA competition came around earlier this year, he worked on a project solo. He called the robot “Merry.”

“It autonomously performs tasks with no remote control whatsoever,” Heuer said.

Originally, Merry was programmed to carry a box from point A to point B. The project placed first in the ATEA competition, with a prize of $1,500. With the pandemic outbreak, the conference at which the award was to be presented was cancelled. CVTC had planned to fly him to New Jersey. “And I had never been on an airplane,” he said.

“Now we’re all the way up to Merry 4.0, which is going to be a pick-and-place robot,” Heuer added.

Heuer credits his daughter, Sarah, a UW-River Falls student, with putting together the required video for the competition. She will receive half the prize money.