By Will Slota
Mastercam Educational Div.
Gig Harbor, WA
As an educational applications engineer, I see many things other people don’t. So when I am at a social gathering and overhear some of my peers talking about manufacturing being dead, I roll my eyes, take a deep breath, and restrain myself from launching into a rant. If they knew what I know, they might think differently.
Large numbers of teens today are computer literate. By the time they reach middle school, some have developed the eye-hand coordination of jet fighter pilots as a result of texting and playing video games. When these kids are shown how those same talents can be used within virtual CAD/CAM environments to design and manufacture products of their own imagining, they can become excited about 21st-century manufacturing.
When I was entering high school, we were asked to make a choice between working with our hands and going to trade school or working with our heads and going to college. Of course, this is a false dichotomy. Today, a new crop of teachers have convinced their school systems of the value of teaching courses in computer integrated manufacturing (CIM) that appeal to students with a wide range of interests and aptitudes.
How many of these CIM opportunities are available to high school students? It’s hard to say, because the advanced training may be embedded in courses with names that haven’t changed much since the "Happy Days" generation. But I can tell you this: there are well over 100,000 CAD/CAM seats active in high schools throughout the US.
Students who’ve been exposed to CIM may attend a university to study engineering or a community college to learn CNC manufacturing skills vital to the survival of modern OEMs and job shops. If a student decides to get an associate’s degree, this isn’t necessarily the end of the line either.
There are many opportunities for him or her to go on to advanced courses at a university immediately afterward, or when they’ve gotten some on-the-job experience. Meanwhile, they have a job that pays well in a field that is exciting, interesting and challenging.
Community college instructors tell me they routinely place all of the students who want jobs in manufacturing within six months of graduation. Those who serve internships are frequently hired before they graduate.
In some areas, the need for robust manufacturing-technology education has become so urgent that collaborations are emerging among local manufacturers, educational institutions, and vendors of software and equipment. These partnerships allow product demonstrations, training activities, outreach lectures, and manufacturing coursework within a sophisticated manufacturing laboratory environment. Spartanburg Community College (Spartanburg, SC); SIMT (Southeast Institute of Manufacturing & Technology; Florence, SC); and Davis Technical College (Salt Lake City) are examples of institutions that participate in these sorts of programs.
Many states have jumped in to help fill the need for bright young workers equipped for careers in manufacturing. Washington, for example, has a range of training opportunities available for students looking to pursue aerospace careers. Similarly, BOCES (Board of Cooperative Education Services) programs in New York State and in Pennsylvania are working to match trained students with the manufacturing jobs of the future.
This brings us to higher education. Many universities offer powerful educational experiences in engineering and manufacturing technology at the undergraduate and graduate level. For example, Auburn University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering’s Design and Manufacturing Laboratory is building all kinds of "out of this world" components, but they are also using their CAM seats to do research in material science and in processes like friction stir welding, and to study chip formation in exotic materials during micro/meso/nano-scale machining.
Research like this may come as no surprise, but what may be surprising is how many seats of CAD/CAM software are showing up in departments that aren’t necessarily teaching manufacturing skills—the Radio Astronomy Department at the University of Massachusetts, for example. They are making their own mesoscale research components.
Judging from the impressive population of CAD/CAM seats in nonmanufacturing departments at universities, there are large numbers of students engaged in manufacturing who might not realize it.
So, whoever is suggesting that manufacturing in the US is dead or a poor career path choice is just not talking to the people I meet. If manufacturing is dead, the people I work with every day clearly haven’t gotten that memo. And that’s a good thing! ME
This article was first published in the February 2011 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.