Precision Training Helps Midwest Manufacturers Strengthen Workforce, Narrow Skills Gap

Manufacturers in the Midwest, like the rest of the country, are facing a well-documented and worsening skills gap. Fortunately, one organization is working with industry in the region to close the gap through state-of-the-art training for in-demand skilled trades such as machining and mold making.

The Technology & Manufacturing Association (TMA) in Schaumburg, IL, began in 1925 as the Tool and Die Institute when two local tool company owners recognized the need for cooperation among metalworkers in the Chicago area to solve problems facing their trade. Today, the organization represents over 1,000 manufacturers and 30,000 manufacturing employees. It serves as a resource for Midwest manufacturers looking to improve operations, strengthen their workforce, and grow their businesses. TMA envisions "a robust network of Midwest 'makers' that leads the U.S. and the world in precision manufacturing."

Training and development are among the valuable benefits TMA offers to its members. TMA education programs are often customized around specific member needs and employee schedules. The organization offers a full slate of manufacturing skills instruction in tool-and-die making, mold making, and CNC machining. The scope of offerings has expanded over the years to include leadership development seminars and safety training workshops.

A one-time student of TMA, Jack Krikorian, is the Association's Director of Curriculum and Instruction. Krikorian came to TMA seven years ago after a 30-year career in manufacturing and immediately set about modernizing the course curriculum. He was instrumental in establishing CNC instruction, which wasn't offered at the time. With the purchase of two CNC machines, the program's popularity took off and not long afterward Krikorian introduced Mastercam® CAD/CAM software (CNC Software, Inc., Tolland CT) into the advanced training offerings.

It's important to Krikorian that his coursework keeps students engaged - especially because they typically attend classes at TMA after having completed a full workday.

"We have students that are starting work at 6 o'clock in the morning, working until 4 or 5 o'clock, and then coming here in the evenings. I try to keep the curriculum as exciting as I can. I can't have them just sitting on their butts or they'll fall asleep," joked Krikorian.

More than 175 students are currently enrolled in TMA's CNC education programs. Students typically follow one of two instructor-led paths: three-level Hands-On Training, and Related Theory, which is also known as the three-year apprenticeship program. Hands-On Training begins with a 16-week introduction for setting up, operating, and programming a CNC mill and CNC lathe.

The second level builds on the first and involves advanced G-code techniques. Students select proper tooling; write, run, and verify G-code programs, and inspect to print specifications. Second level students also complete a capstone project.

"We have 21 simulators; they're basically the controls of the machine without the machine, which gives each student the opportunity to have an individual controller instead of one person typing and 18 of them watching," said Krikorian. "Everybody sits down with a blueprint and types in their program in G-code. They can simulate it to see if there are any issues. If they get a good program, we'll put it on a memory stick, go out to the machine, set it up, and run their part."

In level three Hands-On Training, students transition from G-code to CAM programming. Students use Mastercam 2019 to program and machine six new projects varying in degrees of complexity.

Students following TMA's three-year apprenticeship program path eventually choose a specialty in mold making, tool and die, or CNC programming. In the beginning, however, everyone starts from the same place, according to Krikorian.

"Our first-year apprentice course is just like a community college. Students take blueprint reading, machine shop theory, and math. All the apprentices are together; they're all doing the same thing," said Krikorian.

In the second year, they continue the study of print reading, more advanced shop math, and machining basics. In their third year-Advanced CNC Programming-students complete a capstone project and learn more complex methods of CNC programming and machining incorporating Mastercam software. Krikorian still continues to emphasize the importance of understanding G-code.

"I'm a big believer that you need to know G-code really well to be a good CAM programmer. I know better than to say that you have to program manually; I just like my students to know the G-code so that they can troubleshoot at the control," said Krikorian. "I feel that having that strong base makes a better programmer, a better machinist."

He continued, "We start fairly basic going from drawing to running some toolpaths. Toward the end I say, 'okay, here's a part, I want you to program it.'"

Krikorian explained that third-year apprenticeship students switch off between 5-axis machining and C- and Y-axis machining and are also in the simulator learning Mastercam. TMA's computer lab has 10 seats of Mastercam 2019 and one for Krikorian, who projects his work onto a large screen so students can watch what he's doing. This experience produces students who are very well-rounded, said Krikorian, and it is designed to increase students' confidence level when they return to the workplace.

"Not every student works for a company that uses Mastercam, but I explain to them that they're learning the concept," said Krikorian. "One of my fears for students is that if their boss approaches them and asks if they'd like to learn CAM software, that they'll be afraid to. But if they've gone through my class, they won't be fearful. It will motivate them to take what they've learned and run with it."

Students are exposed to 3D toolpaths that use Dynamic Motion technology. Dynamic Motion, or Dynamic Milling, uses proprietary algorithms programmed into the software to keep the tool constantly engaged with the material, allowing it to cut intricate geometries at higher speeds. The results include increased tool life, decreased cycle times, and a speedier programming process. Krikorian often looks to Mastercam Reseller, ShopWare, Inc., (Elgin, IL) to take over the students' training. ShopWare offers classroom training, onsite training, and self-paced training in the software. Together, TMA and ShopWare set students up for success.

"I get them through the software basics so they understand and can see what's available. They learn about all the different toolpaths, when to use them and which ones are going to work with the machines," said Krikorian. "ShopWare can kind of take them from me and bring them to the next level. I'm working with ShopWare to raise up my own knowledge a little bit higher too. I can get around it pretty well and I can teach it. But those guys are really the professionals."

TMA's shop is also well-outfitted for students who are already in the workforce, which differentiates it from other training facilities, according to Krikorian.

"Because we're serving member companies, we can't have just one type of controller, for instance," explained Krikorian. "We can't train somebody on a Haas in the evening and then the next morning have them go back to work on a Fanuc controller. So, we train students on the machines they're actually using at their companies."

Krikorian said TMA has four mills - two mills, one mill with a Fanuc control, and one 5-axis mill. They also have a 2-axis lathe and a C- and Y-axis lathe with live tooling. TMA also introduces the concepts and capabilities of Swiss CNC machining and is working on an introduction to 5-axis vertical machining center, according to Krikorian.

"We're cutting metal. We cut aluminum and stainless. We're not cutting plastic," said Krikorian. "We're trying to be as realistic as possible and trying to match what students are doing back at their companies."

To promote 21st century careers to a new generation of workers, TMA's Education Foundation also encourages manufacturing technology training at the high school level and awards grants to programs that "increase the pool of qualified candidates for careers in precision tooling, machining and manufacturing." TMA works with the Education Foundation to facilitate CNC training for high schools that don't have the funds or space for machines or a manufacturing program, according to Krikorian. Students can earn National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) credentials as well as mill and lathe operator credentials. The hands-on program helps meet the demand within TMA membership for qualified CNC machinists.

"Our goal is ultimately to put students right into companies. We're trying to be a little bit of a pipeline for our member companies. They love that we're training high school students who may later join their workforce," said Krikorian, who also chairs the NIMS Advisory Council. "We had one company that offered internships to some senior students. So instead of going to class that semester, students were actually going to the company. After graduation, they were offered positions, and a few of them are still working there."

Mastercam aligns well with Krikorian's vision for the future of TMA training. When he's not teaching, Krikorian said he is working on new curriculum to keep pace with continual change in the industry.

"Computer-aided manufacturing is where everything's going. I don't want to be left behind. I've read articles that say the workforce is training on 40-year-old machines or technology that is from 40 years ago. I want TMA be at the forefront," said Krikorian. "That's why we always use the latest version of Mastercam software because of the latest toolpaths and new innovations that are coming forward with CAM."

Krikorian said his goal is to integrate 3D printing into the curriculum. Because TMA already has the machinery, Krikorian also hopes to eventually do even more with the software, including introducing more stand-alone classes and higher-level CAM software training. He credits the relationship with ShopWare for the success of the software training.

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