MOSSVILLE — The item was unusual, even among the machines included in the tour to demonstrate how Caterpillar Inc. employs unexpected tools to create some of the largest pieces of earthmoving equipment on the planet.

The plastic heart sat next to the 3D printer that molded it in the Caterpillar Technical Center in Mossville, where a few dozen high school students spent Manufacturing Day getting a peak at research and development techniques.

The heart in particular caught the eye of Mara Dimitroff, a 15-year-old sophomore from East Peoria Community High School who attended the tour as part of the school's STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program.

The biological recreation is the product of a collaboration between Caterpillar and OSF HealthCare. Both entities contributed equipment and experience to build an exact copy of a patient's heart with a congenital defect.

"This technology is the future," Dimitroff said. "I've always wanted to be part of the health field, but I can't quite stomach the blood and guts, so I thought I could do something else that would still help people."

Tom Bluth, Caterpillar's chief technology officer and a vice president with responsibility for the Innovation and Technology Development Division, wanted the students who attended Friday to walk away with one thought in particular: "I can't believe Cat does all that."

Bluth points to the development of autonomous mining trucks as one example of Caterpillar's leadership in a high-tech field. The company has produced self-driving mining trucks for more than a decade.

"Caterpillar is one of the largest leaders in autonomous technology," Bluth said. "People always think Silicon Valley, but we do a lot of our autonomous technology right here in Peoria."

And it isn't all done in a cubicle, engineering supervisor James Unruh told students.

"As an engineer, this is a great place. ... We're not sitting at desks all day every day," Unruh said. "We get to come out here and work with the iron."

Matt Buedel can be reached at 686-3154 or mbuedel@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @JournoBuedel.