25 Aug Manufacturing still viable career
High-tech advancements can get techies into ballgame, too
As the manufacturing sector struggles to recover from its two-year-long nightmare, recent or soon-to-be college grads may view a career in building things a bit gauche.
If they could only see what really goes on in today’s factories, maybe they’d amend that view. Modern numeric control systems, robotic welding, remote sensoring and other modern staples of the manufacturing sector simply wouldn’t be possible without the computer revolution that has made the American manufacturing industry the most efficient and productive in the world.
“It’s amazing, once you get into a lot of manufacturing facilities, how quiet, how clean, how high-tech manufacturing has become,” said Russ Patten, a 1993 graduate of Chippewa Valley Technical College’s two-year Mechanical Design program. “I think a lot of people associate manufacturing with a dirty shop floor and a lathe spitting out dirty chunks of metal. My thought when I got started in the program was, when you drive down the road, every single thing that’s created goes through the engineering process. The opportunities are absolutely endless.”
Patten should know. He works for Avatech Solutions, the Twin Cities-based engineering and design firm that includes such business stalwarts as Ford Motor Co., Dow Chemical, Caterpillar and La-Z-Boy.
Even though relatively young in his career, Patten has been privy to a massive shift in how design is done, watching as two-dimensional design has given way to three-dimensional engineering that allows designers to create virtual prototypes, thereby saving money, time and labor that would have been spent creating physical models for a part.
“From a design perspective, you have lower errors, fewer change-overs, less scrap in the shop and less rework on the job site, because you’re able to virtually build this thing before you ever cut a chip [off a piece of material],” Patten said. “A lot of our customers are in the medical industry. If you cut one tool wrong, it easily can cost them $100,000 [over an entire production run]. Just the ability to alleviate that is impressive.”
Chuck Case, who graduated from CVTC in 1965, has had a ringside seat to the extravaganza of change going on, watching design work move from paper and pencil and drafting boards to the 3-D design software he has stacked up in his home office—some of which he hasn’t even opened up yet.
Case and his wife, Cheryl, own Envisioneering Inc., an Eau Claire-based contract design company. He marvels at what industry was able to accomplish without modern design gizmos.
“There’s quite a difference to go from the way things were done on the old drawing board to today,” Case said. “Where the industry was years ago, what was achieved by industry was quite a feat. It had a lot of skill to it. Not to take anything away from today. It still requires a little skill, but in a little different train of thought.”
One of the skills young designers must have is the ability to understand what it takes to manufacture the part they are designing, Case said.
“People doing the design work have to know and understand how the item is going to be manufactured to do their job,” he said. “That’s generally the work that I’ve been involved with all my working life.”
Case got into the 3-D software he now eats and breathes when he and a bunch of former colleagues at a molded plastics division of Amoco began foisting 3-D designs into 2-D computer assisted manufacturing (CAM) software running their machines. By cleverly cutting a design into layers and color-coding them, they could tell the CAM system which Z-axis slice corresponded with each code. The software then picked up a centerline, put the code to it and cut.
“We actually created a shape beyond what the software makers said we were supposed to do,” said Case. “We were kind of making a blend.
With the capabilities of modern design and imaging, the human face can be digitized and scanned and the contours machined out of a block of metal,” he said.
“You can make things about as fancy as you want it or don’t want it,” Case said. “Literally, the files I generate, [customers] can take it right in and run it on a CAM system and manufacture the product. That’s pretty commonplace.”
Getting into that arena means shedding old stereotypes, according to Patten.
“It think the hard part about it, for a lot of students bound for the engineering space, they are thinking about dirty old manufacturing,” Patten said. “Maybe they’ve been down in the shop in high school. Manufacturing just isn’t like that today.”
Lincoln Brunner is a Stevens Point, Wisconsin-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to the Wisconsin Technology Network. He can be reached at email@example.com.