Winning the Skills Race
By Derek Goodwin
Founder of eapprentice.net
Imagine that you have the money to purchase a NASCAR race car. You could drive the car yourself, but to win Daytona, you are going to need a team. The driver gets all the glory, but won’t get far without the crew chief, tire specialists, mechanics, and pit crew. The team is just as important as the technology.
As a leader in a manufacturing company, you face similar challenges. Modern CNC machines cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but placing that technology on the floor is just the beginning. Utilizing the technology requires a process development team interacting with a series of software technologies including the CAD/CAM system, the post processor, the G-code simulator, G-code program, and machine tool controller.
All of these technologies are supplied by different vendors and your internal team may not have the right specialists on board to drive the technology from day one. There are cases where sophisticated machine tools sit mostly gathering dust for six months, nine months, a year or more before the assigned owners could figure out a workflow and manufacturing process that allowed for their safe and effective usage.
Have a Launch Plan
Avoid this scenario at your company. There must be a plan in place that will allow for the launch of a sophisticated new tool into high levels of effective use as quickly as possible.
For example, a company we work with recently purchased an advanced multiaxis work cell. Developing a turnkey process to produce a family of components complete in one machining cycle involved collaborating with internal staff at the customer, the applications engineer from the machine tool distributor, production specialists on our team, and a post processing expert from CNC Software Inc. Once the process was implemented and proven out, we provided a custom five-day intensive training program specifically for the company, teaching operation of the equipment, as well as programming, machine simulation, and process development using Mastercam CAD/CAM software. The training was designed to take users with machine tool experience and involve them in multiaxis programming and simulation. Mornings were spent on computers in a conference room, followed by hands on experience using this advanced machine for their own parts in the afternoons.
Deliverables of this project included:
1. Machine-specific training in multiaxis Mastercam programming.
2. Custom postprocessor to connect CAM with the machine controller.
3. Machine operation training, including critical controller and postprocessor issues.
4. A proven Mastercam program for one of the company's most representative part families.
5. A manufacturing process, including workholding solutions for this and similar parts.
6. Instructional materials including videos taken during the classroom sessions dealing with their own manufacturing issues.
The company benefited by immediately obtaining high uptime levels for a powerful manufacturing tool right out of the box. They identified people on their staff and courseware resources for training others in their shop to handle important programming, setup, and operational tasks related to this specific equipment. The objective was for the company to recover the cost of this program within the first four months by being able to operate the new equipment efficiently at much higher than average initial application levels.
Learning From The Experience
There is one other thing that we hope our customer will take away from their new machining technology launch plan: making a commitment to developing a learning culture within the organization so that willing staffers will have many opportunities to acquire new skills and then share them with coworkers. After all, the arrival of an exciting new piece of equipment is not an isolated event. It’s something that is going to happen over and over again at an increasingly faster pace.
It’s easy to lament the disappearance of traditional apprenticeship programs that meticulously taught metalworking skills from the bottom up. Even if such programs still existed on a wider scale, they would have to be updated constantly. Technology evolves quickly. Everyday we learn about a new software, coolant, tooling, or machining breakthrough. There is just too much good new technology for any individual to wrap his mind around it completely and apply expeditiously.
Instead, the companies who become successful technology assimilators will employ learning teams who divide and conquer. They will give their people the resources needed to work individually and in groups to deconstruct new manufacturing concepts and figure out what is of value and how it can be put to immediate use. Within these learning environments, high value will be placed, not on hoarding skills and becoming the only one who can do it, but rather on continuous education and teaching others so that the company can grow and contributors learn and grow along with it.
If this seems like an idealistic picture of the future, look again. Many companies are beginning to implement their own vision of a learning environment. In addition, there is a small but rapidly growing sub-industry that is supporting this trend. They are offering such things as internet-based learning experiences, digital courseware, video-based instruction, consultative training, CAM programming training integrated with process development and specialized platforms that allow companies to develop and deliver their own proprietary learning content. These companies leverage a network of multidisciplinary teams to deliver a very valuable and needed service. This is a new era and we are as an industry inventing something new to respond to the so-called skills crisis.