So you want to be a machinist right? Who doesn't? There's no better feeling of accomplishment than when you watch something appear out of a block of solid metal that you've spent all day setting up and programming from a drawing. But one thing that I've come to learn during my time in this industry, is that it doesn't come easy, and some individuals take to it a lot differently to others. But what does it take to become a skilled machinist in 2018?
Let's talk about the fundamentals - drawings. I'll be frank - if you can't read technical drawings, you stand very little chance of getting your first gig in a machine shop. This should be the first place everyone should start. Understanding 3rd angle projection is still something that can catch out some people, and it never ceases to amaze me how it can catch me out in the most awkward of situations, in front of clients, fellow workmates always in embarrassing fashion. Not nearly as embarrassing as it would be however if someone handed you a drawing and it seems as though it's written in a language only found in outer space...
A good way to simplify learning reading them, is to learn how to draw them. Grab yourself a set of Vernier calipers, a simple component, and draw some simple layouts of it, dimensioning critical dimensions. Ask someone if they understand what you've drawn - that will help you find the dimensions required to make something simple, and grow on that. Then there's tolerances - the dimensions tagged with +0.00/-0.002; it's simple stuff to some, but to others, understanding that a shaft has to fit in a bearing and therefore cannot be larger than a certain dimension or smaller than another, is quite a challenge.
That's all before we've even stepped foot in a machine shop! I had the benefit of learning to machine manually first, personally I feel this gives any machinist an advantage, however as I'm sure some CNC'ers may agree, you lose a really important part of machining with CNC - feel. It's this sensory input which helps you understand the material you're cutting, the feed rate, the RPM, the way the tool behaves - it's all taught by the connection with that handle. In contrast, I've known CNC machinists who've blown me away with their ability, only to really surprise me that they've never touched a manual machine! It's not everything, but I think it helps.
If you work in a large-batch production environment, you'll find you spend a lot of your time on the same job, obviously. Unless you get moved around a lot onto different work, there's a strong chance you won't work with different CNC controls and importantly different tooling. Smaller precision engineering firms often run smaller batches, meaning one job is generally completely different to the next. This results in a requirement for some fairly extensive tooling knowledge, knowing what tools can be used for what features, what speeds and feeds are to be used for the tool and the material. There are plenty of books and resources out there to give you these, especially the tooling manufacturer, however they're just indicators - nothing can tell you what's perfect, other than experience and actually running the job.
Smaller batches also mean there will be challenges thrown at you when the customer presents you a drawing, with no setup guide or fixture. Understanding how best to hold the component takes a fair bit of understanding - more than I can put into a few words here to be honest. You need to understand program efficiencies, the materials involved, the accuracy and repeatability required, the speed of reloads, the list goes on.
That all sounds like hard work - and to someone who isn't a machinist but likes the idea of becoming one, sounds quite unachievable. However, I can tell you with the right guidance you can get to the point where it comes naturally. Luckily there are many sources for learning to get you started, much of which you can do before even getting in front of an operational machining facility. One such example, a great operation has recently not too far from Atom Precision, is the Marches Centre of Manufacturing Technology. Offering apprenticeships to young students in the UK in many different engineering and manufacturing fields. It's initiatives like this that will keep us striving to continue to excel in manufacturing. If you or anyone you know is interested in finding out more about the MCMT, follow the link below.
Do you have any top tips for upcoming manufacturing engineers and machinists? Comment below!