A Different Way In

What is a fitting entry point for a modern manufacturing career? Desktop 3D printing machines offer real promise.


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Traditionally, students and apprentices have learned the manufacturing trades by mastering a progression of skills. In machining, an apprentice might learn basic benchwork first, followed by the operation of simple machine tools, then the setup of those machines, then the operation and even the programming of more modern equipment. Employers today are rightly concerned that not enough young people are choosing these trades, because not enough seem to be setting out on paths like the one just described.


But does that path still provide the right way in? Manufacturing job roles have changed—partly because of technology, and partly because employee roles have expanded in facilities that now rely on leaner and more nimble staffing. Does mastering skills in the traditional sequence properly set up students for modern manufacturing work? More significantly, does this path entice those who might be naturally gifted for this work?


At the most recent Maker Faire, an event for amateur inventors and mechanics, a writer named Shawn Wallace walked the expo grounds counting desktop 3D printers being offered. He found 55 varieties now available. In a presentation at Rapid, a trade show concerned with 3D printing, additive manufacturing consultant Terry Wohlers coupled Mr. Wallace’s finding with a list of amateur-accessible CAD systems usable with these machines—software such as 3DTin and Tinkercad, as well as Autodesk’s 123D. The take-away is this: For a level of investment an enthusiast would accept, it’s now possible to have a home system for digitally modeling simple objects and sending them straight into physical creation. Arguably, the experience of using a system such as this offers a more meaningful starting point for modern manufacturing than beginning at the bench.


The bench will come. After basic 3D printing, the next step up actually is not advanced 3D printing. There is no direct connection between low-end 3D printers and high-end additive manufacturing machines doing industrial work. Instead, the next step, once the hobbyist hits the limits of desktop 3D printing, is machining. Some combination of a lathe, drill press and milling machine offers the chance both to use metal and to realize greater dimensional control. The person in pursuit of these possibilities will see the value of the setup and benching techniques this equipment requires. Combine this new machining experience with that person’s existing digital manufacturing experience, and the result is a strong candidate for a vocation involved with modern CNC machining.


In other words, the CAD can come first. Perhaps the CAD ought to come first. Manufacturing technologies appeared in history in a particular order, but we can learn those technologies in a different order. If some of those 55 home 3D printer models find sizable markets, and if many of the buyers are parents sharing access to the equipment with children, then we might not have as much of a lack of upcoming manufacturing talent as the industry might fear. A young person who learns from experience that objects can be engineered for a purpose and produced to specification has laid the foundation on which a manufacturing career can be built.