Looking Ahead for the Future of the Manufacturing Industry

John Stiles, Senior Programmer at McAfee Tool & Die, located in Green, Ohio, has spent his entire career in the manufacturing industry. “I remember back in the day when we didn’t have computers and graphics yet in the shop. I literally wrote shorthand code using specialized programming language and then tapped into a modem that went to a mainframe computer. You told it which machine you were coding for, and it would spit out the paper tape that you’d take out to put on the machine,” he recalled. When he tells you how the industry is changing, you can trust his opinion.

What Stiles is most worried about is how the manufacturing industry will be able to continue without a great influx of young workers. “We’re trying to fight this age issue. Eighty percent of the people in this industry are in their late 40s or 50s. But what’s going to happen after that, when many years of experience begins to leave the trade and retire?” he questioned.

In an effort to get ahead of the problem, McAfee joined the National Tooling & Machining Association (NTMA) in Cleveland, Ohio, an organization that advocates for and supports the precision manufacturing industry.

Through NTMA, McAfee was made aware of programs hosted by the state of Ohio to boost the manufacturing industry. A group from McAfee sat down with a representative from the state to discuss options soon after. Enrollment in the program required the company to be audited and the shop’s machines and techniques to be studied. After the completion of the analysis, the state promised funding for the schooling and books of three apprentices.

Student at controller at McAfee Machine shop

McAfee’s three apprentices, Noah, Gunner, and Christian, all in their late teens to early twenties, are enrolled in the Advanced Manufacturing Technology program at Stark State College in Canton, Ohio). Each will earn an associate degree upon completion and will have a solid foundational knowledge in CNC operation and programming, simulation and analyses, and high-precision machining. Faculty from Stark were even happy to discuss McAfee’s goals for their apprentices and to cater their courses to fit.

So far, the apprentices are doing well in their positions on the shop floor. Stiles appreciates how well they understand new technology and how quickly they learn, but he also knows that being prepared for inevitable errors along the way is crucial. That’s where Mastercam comes in. The Verify and Backplot functions within Mastercam highlight potential crashes, meaning that a very expensive mistake will be reduced to a stress-free learning opportunity.

“It’s tremendous for us. An apprentice can crash the machine on your computer all you want. It’s no sweat for us here,” said Stiles. “When real machines crash or we have to buy a new piece of steel, though, then it’s a problem. The steel is 30 percent of the job, so if an apprentice scraps something, you go from profit to loss in a second.”

Stiles hopes that the apprenticeship program will help inundate the manufacturing industry with much-needed employees. One apprenticeship graduate, Ben Ohler, is now an assistant programmer learning forty years’ worth of tricks of the trade from Stiles working at McAfee today. “I got sent to school by the state of Ohio. I learned CNC machining at Stark State, and here I am, 10 years later,” he said. While he was in school, he even noticed many students in their 50s who had recognized the potential in machining and who wanted to waste no more time in their old careers.

Plant Manager Joseph Lysiak shares Stiles’s worry about the future and says that he tries to impress upon young people how fulfilling a career in the trades can be. “My son went to an apprenticeship at an excavating company. He’s about 26 now and earns more than six figures a year. He lives in his own house, has no college debt, and he drives trucks that are all paid for. That’s what I try to explain to kids: they’re paying you to go to school. How much greater can it be, really?”

To learn a little bit more about McAfee Tool & Die, you can read an article from Fabricating & Metalworking: Growing CNC Services with 5-Axis Milling.