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San Diego Machine Tech Program Leads the Way to Jobs, Puts San Diego City College on the Map

Jack Bollinger
By Jack Bollinger Professor of Machine Technology, San Diego City College

Since the 1900s, the Machine Technology Program (MACT) at San Diego City College has been preparing machinists for jobs in the real world by engaging local industry leaders to tailor the curriculum to fit their needs and ensure marketable graduates. Comprised of a series of 11 classes leading to an Associate of Science Degree in Machine Technology, and several certificates of achievement—including Performance, CNC Technology, Computer Aided Manufacturing, CNC Operator, Computer Numerical Control Technology, and Machine Technology—MACT requires that every student learns the basics unless they are already machinists who are there for training in the latest technology. We have approximately 180 students currently enrolled in the day and night programs with another 70 or so students enrolled in one of the various classes.

In the ’80s I was asked by the US Department of Education and the National Science Foundation to create a sensible curriculum for CAD/CAM and CNC machining that could be disseminated across North America in a way everyone could understand. About 600 different companies critiqued my ideas, contributing their thoughts and needs. It allowed us to get a rounded idea of what these companies wanted and to tailor curriculum to the requirements of NAFTA countries. The result is still the national model upon which much CAD/CAM and CNC machining education is based. The involvement with industry plays a large part in its success.

California law requires us to meet with an advisory committee once a year to discuss curriculum. I welcome the input from the eight to 10 member companies that sit on our committee and I do communicate with them more than once per year. They will say to me, “Jack, you need to be doing this or you have to emphasize that,” so I develop the projects using a simple process: part design, drafting, leveling, colors, and toolpaths. We have a very dynamic flow of information back and forth and they are the companies that are hiring my students. I also have six adjunct instructors and four teaching assistants who also work in industry and keep me apprised as to whether we need to focus more on one particular skill or even if a technique is becoming antiquated.

The MACT program eases the students in slowly, teaching them the fundamentals of CNC manufacturing from the ground up. Not all manufacturers are on board with the latest and greatest technologies and our students are well-equipped to work in any environment when they graduate. City College has almost 9000 ft2 of shop space with seven CNC milling machines, several manual machines, and three 3D printers as well as two computer labs.

Students don’t move into the computer lab until the first two courses are completed. The Basic Principles/Machine Tech class uses the manual machines to teach the principles of milling operations, including safety procedures and blueprint reading. The next class, Intro to CNC and EDM, teaches students how to set up and operate CNC machine tools, including how to calculate and create a basic NC program. The way the program is designed the student will become someone we can give a blueprint or workpiece to, go through the entire process with a minimum amount of help and, when they’re done, can turn in the completed part. All of the students need to create their own NC code, calculate their speeds and feeds, set up the machine, load the code, edit as needed, cut and inspect the part. We teach our students to be very strong in hand coding so they will be able to edit programs that have been created in CAD. Employers really like that the students know how to do that.

The Intro to CAD/CAM class takes the students into the computer lab and introduces them to CAD/CAM programming using Mastercam CAM software, which is used the most in industry. The students are basically using Mastercam to generate code but the curriculum also gets into contours, pockets, hole drilling, tapping and reaming, along with all the associated working files that go with those operations. The introductory class teaches the types of CAD/CAM work students will find in actual job shops.

Students then attend lab classes with extended lab hours—there are no formal lectures, just videos for each of the projects, all of which are found on my web page. At this point, students are encouraged to do more thinking on their own. Their first project or two use hand coding and we teach them to use macros and loops and how to integrate their CAD/CAM programs into a project. This is also when we introduce them to four-axis programming, as well as Mastercam’s Dynamic Milling to achieve faster, more efficient metalcutting operations. By teaching them both regular toolpaths and Dynamic toolpaths, we’re making them more marketable when they leave us. As they proceed, the work is progressively harder and they receive less help from the staff in order to make them more self-reliant.

Instructors teach how to calculate feeds and speeds by giving students the parameters but not the speeds and feeds to use. So, if they’re cutting and they realize the cutter is going too fast or too slow, they need to adjust just as if they are adapting to real life shop-floor conditions.

The college has 80 seats of Mastercam to teach introductory, intermediary and advanced operations in the two labs. The introductory class teaches the types of CAD/CAM work students will find in actual job shops.

The Advanced Mastercam course teaches the toolpaths for surfaces and solid modeling. Students are also taught 3D printing by selecting their toolpaths and cutting the part in Mastercam as a solid model. Using a verification process, the program is saved as an .STL file and loaded into one of the 3D printers. This rapid prototyping operation lets the students see, in plastic, what the part will look like when machined out of metal on one of the CNC mills.

Since many of the older students are owners of smaller shops or managers in larger plants in the San Diego area and are attending City College to gain proficiency in the newer technologies like Dynamic Milling, they are familiar with the training and education received by potential new recruits. In many cases, these experienced students are the decision makers at their companies. When they need a new hire who will be really good at CAD/CAM operations in their shop, they know we have them right here. The instructors design projects that feature drilled holes and reamed holes, and taps and pockets and contours, and just about everything else that can be programmed in Mastercam and machined on a CNC mill. When our students learn how to make the projects in our curriculum, they will be able to perform the same operations on anyone’s real-world project.

The program is supported by the Center for Applied Competitive Technologies, a program that falls under the California Community College Chancellor’s Office Economic and Workforce Development Program. The CACT, under the EWD invests in manufacturing education throughout California by contributing funding and specialized industry training, through on-site training, low-or-no cost technical assistance and educational workshops.

Does it work?

The MACT program at San Diego City College is proof that the collaboration between industry and education has created a model for thoughtful and successful manufacturing training long into the future.

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