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Powerful, Intricate Technology Taught in CVTC’s New Tool and Die Program

To get an idea of the intricacy possible in machining and tool making these days, consider the following: using electro-discharge machining, or EDM, you can tunnel into the thin side of a dime, remove all the metal under the image of Roosevelt, and leave the top and lower surfaces of that same dime as thin as foil.

It’s an impressive example used by Steve Plendl, the lead EDM instructor at Chippewa Valley Technical College’s glass and steel Manufacturing Education Center on the Gateway Campus in west Eau Claire.

EDM is change-making technology that has taken hold in U.S. manufacturing in the last ten years. One Chippewa Falls machining executive says EDM has caused a lot of rethinking in the industry. Tighter tolerances than conventional machining can be achieved without high cost, says Scott Coulson of Coulson Precision Tooling. It has a lot more application than what many, even in the industry, think, he says.

The technology will be part of the curriculum when CVTC opens its new Tool and Die program in January of 2004. It’s a curriculum that CVTC officials believe might have as much appeal to fully employed machinists as it does to new students. CVTC is scheduling night classes too. Coulson says that with CVTC moving to include EDM instruction, training costs will decline.

EDM works by sending a charge through a slowly extruded wire that heats up to 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, all of which takes place under the surface of a dielectric solution in a tank. It’s impressive technology, but also more and more commonplace. It’s a technology necessary for tool and die instruction, says Steve Michaud, journeyman machinist and campus administrator. CVTC students will learn the technology, Michaud emphasizes.
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EDM, just one of the technologies to be learned by the tool and die students, makes new parts and new economies possible.

For instance, a plastic part made by one local manufacturer using EDM takes advantage of the flexibility of the plastic material. Openings and barbs are configured in the part so that when moved into an aperture, the part first collapses to go through the hole and then returns to shape once passed through. That secures the piece. The piece serves as a fastener to keep an inside ceiling fixed to the roof of a car. It wouldn’t have been economic before EDM to make such a part so complex. As it is now, the part is made for a fraction of a cent in runs of millions. It’s not insignificant. It’s product improvement.

New economies are equally impressive. A CVTC student using EDM takes three hours to make a part that an experienced machinist might have spent half a work week producing. Such advances, as local machinists and toolmakers know, are why labor productivity in their industry has been surging to record levels for several years. It’s the computer being interfaced to machine tools. One machinist or toolmaker is becoming capable of an extraordinary amount of work performed with equally extraordinary precision.

CVTC President Bill Ihlenfeldt points to a recent study published in the Wall Street Journal that demonstrates the impact of automation like EDM on the world today. Much has been made of the job slump in manufacturing. Indeed, 22 million jobs have been lost worldwide, and in the U.S. alone two million manufacturing jobs were lost between 1995 and 2002. That’s an 11 percent drop. But in the same time period Brazil lost 20 percent and China lost 15 percent of their respective manufacturing jobs.

What’s happening, Ihlenfeldt and Michaud agree, is that automation has become a worldwide and major phenomenon.

Michaud says that’s good news for the machine tool and the soon-to-begin tool and die students. "It’s opportunity. We’ve been saying for years that it’s automate or evaporate and now the evidence is overwhelming. But for people trained in automation, like our students, the news has never been better," he says. Coulson, the Chippewa Falls businessman, says EDM can be "lights out manufacturing."

With careful thought and planning, he says, the machine can run and produce parts all by itself as far into the night as is desired.

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Jim Mortwedt is the Communications Manager at Chippewa Valley Technical College. He can be contacted at JMORTWEDT@cvtc.edu.

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