Anyone can sell a machine. Not everyone provides the extra effort that makes a difference in the company’s bottom line. That was the philosophy of Clement McIver Sr., founder of Methods Machine Tools in Sudbury, Mass. Methods began distributing machine tools before many people reading this were born. Some 60 years later, the third generation of McIvers is still leading the company. Clement’s guiding principle continues to encourage Methods and its 300-plus team members to focus on successful customer outcomes rather than favorable sales numbers and profit margins.
For most if not all manufacturers today, delivering a successful customer outcome depends on one thing: finding and retaining skilled, hard-working employees. A chronic labor shortage continues to plague the industry, hampering growth in machine shops, moldmaking firms, plastic injection molding houses and similar companies across the country. And just as this international machine tool importer has done since its inception in 1958, Methods continues to put in the extra effort as its founder urged.
Its goal? To train and educate young people for rewarding careers in manufacturing.
Some call them internships. Others refer to them as apprenticeships or simply “co-ops.” Methods Process Engineer Jessica Nguyen prefers the latter term. She’s worked at Methods since graduating from Wentworth Institute of Technology, a technical design and engineering university in Boston with a history even longer than current employer’s. That was three years ago, and although she never intended to work in the machine tool industry, there’s no looking back.
Nguyen attended Wentworth in pursuit of a biomedical engineering degree. She spent the last year of her program as a production engineering co-op student at Methods, focusing on continuous improvement. She learned how to read electrical and mechanical schematics, develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) and training materials, and apply Lean principles to improve efficiency in the production area. Best of all, Methods paid her to do so while she simultaneously met the school’s requirement that all students complete at least two semesters of co-op work, with an option to take a third.
“You get to touch a lot of different technologies here,” Nguyen said. “And if you want to try your hand at something different, everyone is very supportive. So when they offered me a job, and my manager began transitioning me into a full-time recruiting role for the engineering department and production, I was very excited to be a part of it.”
To say “a lot of different technologies” is an understatement. From Boston to Los Angeles, Methods has nine locations throughout the U.S. and has installed more than 40,000 CNC lathes and multi-tasking machines, machining centers and EDM systems throughout North America. Its flagship lines include Nakamura-Tome, FANUC, Yasda, OKK and Kiwa, all backed by a team of experienced application and service engineers.
The importer and distributor is also very active in robotics and automated material handling, something Nguyen experienced first-hand during her co-op days.
Today, she spends much of her time on Methods’ outreach program, working with area schools and technical institutions to introduce additional students to manufacturing. One student is Ryan Luisi, who recently completed a co-op program at Methods, graduated from nearby Worcester Polytechnic Institute with a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering, and will now work at Methods part-time while pursuing his master’s degree in manufacturing.
“I love what I’m doing here,” Luisi said. “They taught me how to operate a knee mill and an engine lathe, and I’ve had the opportunity to machine some actual parts. I’ve also worked on installing and testing the different options and accessories that our customers order and spend much of my time writing process documentation, which is something I enjoy. Seeing how all the different components fit into a CNC machine and learning how it operates is knowledge that will definitely help me down the line.”
He’s not the only engineering student. Nguyen explained that Methods currently has eight co-ops, a figure that has been “about average” since she began working there in 2018. And, in the spirit of continuous improvement, she conducts exit interviews with each of them before they leave the program.
She recently spoke with Peter Dustin, a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. Dustin is on track to earn his Bachelor’s Degree in Aerospace Engineering next spring. “Peter’s experience was a little different than most of our co-ops because he completed two semesters with us,” she said. “His position focused on mechanical design, but he was able to get a very well-rounded experience doing pre-sale automation layouts and option design as well as some research and development work. And, since he ran the Solidworks training for our incoming co-ops, he was also very helpful with onboarding other students.”
It was during Dustin’s tenure that Methods modified its outreach program. Rather than just having a pool of students available to work with whoever needed them for a project, management decided to assign each co-op student to a specific engineer. According to Dustin, the new direct reporting structure gave them additional work and greater responsibilities, and made them feel more integrated with and essential to the company.
“I really enjoyed it, as did others with whom I spoke,” he said. “All of us were able to directly shadow a full-time engineer, which also includes attending corporate meetings and managing tasks from those meetings. There was also a lot of intra-departmental collaboration that was very helpful, such as releasing our designs and getting feedback on our ideas from the production department. Overall, it was a nice balance between hands-on work and so-called ‘desk time’ with SolidWorks and various research-oriented activities.”
Guy Parenteau was part of the team at Methods that decided to make the shift to direct reporting. An engineering manager and an employee since 2007, he was himself a co-op “back in the day” (although not with Methods) and said it was a great learning experience. And while he’s a big fan of the outreach program and proud of what he and his colleagues at Methods are doing for students and the manufacturing community, he’s found that his own employees also enjoy significant benefits.
“Being responsible for a direct report gives them the supervisory experience that they otherwise would not get, at least until they actually become a manager,” said Parenteau. “It’s an excellent way for co-ops and employees alike to learn what’s involved with assigning tasks, interviewing prospects, giving performance reviews and dealing with daily minutiae like making sure employees clock in and out of jobs. Some have even come up to me after a few weeks to apologize for past behavior, now that they know what it’s like to be in a management role. It’s just a great experience for all involved.”
Parenteau has also assisted with capstone projects. In one memorable example, student teams were tasked with developing a material handling system able to lift products from a lower level to a higher one. At the end of the semester, groups presented their solutions, from which a winning design was chosen and constructed.
“You could tell from watching them that they were learning an awful lot,” he said. “We actually ended up hiring one of the kids on the winning team, who after a few years went to work at Tesla. He turned out to be a great engineer.” Brian Finn is one of Parenteau’s other great engineers, and an expert in electromechanical systems. His direct report is Gregory Troop, a student at Wentworth who’s interested in mechatronics, robotics and automation engineering. Troop explained that he “didn’t know much about Methods beforehand,” but looked at the job description for the controls engineer internship and was immediately struck that it promised hands-on interaction with industrial equipment.
“That’s exactly what I got, as well as an opportunity to learn SolidWorks Electrical, software that I didn’t have access to at school,” said Troop. “Because of that, I’ve gained a much better understanding of how all the theory that they drill into you at school applies to the real world, and how I can use that experience to solve different problems. I’m very glad to have had this opportunity.”
Finn’s glad as well. He’s able to hand off integration projects to Troop and “let him run with it,” referring back to Finn as needed for support (which is not too often). Such delegation is especially important given the rise in automation requests that Methods has seen of late, due in large part to the problem mentioned earlier: not enough skilled machinists to meet industry demand. “Robots and other forms of automated material handling are definitely on the increase, so we’re very glad to have people like Greg and the other co-ops to help us,” he said.
Critics might suggest that internship programs like these are all well and good, but what about teaching young people to be machinists and tool-and-die makers? These positions are the biggest need, they’ll say, not college graduates with interests in robotics and electrical engineering. Parenteau answers that question in two ways.
First, Methods is not the only employer in the area to provide co-op opportunities. He was one of several people there who mentioned nearby machine shops that do exactly that—work with Wentworth and other universities to train the next generation of machinists and programmers. But it’s also important to recognize that this next generation will be unlike any that have come before.
Thanks to the higher levels of automation the industry is embracing, not to mention the trend toward digital manufacturing, the IIoT and Industry 4.0, tomorrow’s workers will require more technical skill sets. Said Parenteau, “Methods’ outreach program serves a valuable role in teaching these technicians and engineers some of the tools they’ll need to compete in a rapidly changing marketplace.”
Dale Hedberg, Methods’ vice president of operations, seconded this statement. “We’re here to help manufacturers succeed, and one of the best ways to accomplish that is to support students however we can,” he said. “It’s just one more example of the extra effort we have always provided to our customers and the community.”
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