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Better Together: Machinists and Programmers

Jamie Goettler
By Jamie Goettler Director, Customer Engagement, MSC Industrial Supply Co.

Spend enough time on shop floors and you’ll learn about the two different groups of skilled workers that reside there. On one side are the old-school machinists—skilled craftspeople who use their hands, eyes and ears to guide machine tools. On the other side are the programmers and engineers. They bring deep knowledge of CAD and CAM and can turn a shop full of CNC machines into a manufacturing orchestra, conducting it all with a keyboard and a mouse.

The primary reason these two groups exist is manufacturing has not yet been able to meld them into a single, cohesive group. The two groups seem very different. Traditional machinists have hands-on skills. New-school machinists are more comfortable with software than with handles and draw bars.

But for manufacturing, the difference isn’t just about skill sets or tools. Today’s technologies enable cost-effective production of parts with contours, precision and repeatability not feasible in the past. Traditional machining techniques will continue to be important in certain specialized niches and applications, but manufacturing will increasingly require computer-driven tools.

But that doesn’t mean it’s time for traditional machinists to move on, or that your factory should be staffed entirely by technologists who think of their work in 1s and 0s.

Labor Market Challenges

We still don’t know how fast the transition will be or when it will be time to get rid of the last non-CNC machine. In the meantime, work must go on in the current, challenging manufacturing labor market. Manufacturers are having trouble finding skilled—or even willing—workers. There is plenty of work for both old-school machinists and the new wave of programmers and engineers. So as an employer, what do you do?

First, stop thinking about “old-school” and “new-school” as separate groups. They can learn from each other and work together to strengthen the manufacturing economy. In that sense, despite the workforce challenges, manufacturing may have greater potential now than it ever has.

In the future, CAD/CAM, along with machine control and motion capabilities, will continue to expand. Maximizing multitasking and multiaxis machining capabilities depends on programming.

Simulation is another breakthrough. Knowing if the tool will strike a fixture or vise, or if there are one too many zeros in the programmed feed rate, provides the new generation of programmers a confidence their elders never had.

The best and most progressive shops have people who develop machining programs, assess overall production, and constantly improve processes. They can reduce scrap rates, cut cycle times, improve tool life and boost efficiency.

Reaching those goals takes people who understand all aspects of machining. And it requires teamwork between executives, shop managers, programmers and machinists—along with the industrywide experience of supply and consulting organizations such as MSC.

Building a Team

How do shop owners engineer this teamwork? A major focus should be employee training—not specifically on computers or robotics, but rather on learning to improve processes, boost throughput and increase quality. While many operations are or will be automated, there will always be a need for human intelligence to analyze all the factors and make decisions that maximize manufacturing productivity.

Do that, and your workers will continue to be the engine that drives the manufacturing sector for generations to come.

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