Last May, the consulting firm Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute—the workforce development arm of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM)—published a joint study. Among its many alarming conclusions was the news that finding the right manufacturing talent “is now 36 percent harder than it was in 2018, even though the unemployment rate has nearly doubled the supply of available workers,” and that the “skills gap in the U.S. could result in 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030.”
Defining the Need
The solution, of course, is automation. Lots and lots of automation. When lathes, machining centers and other CNC machine tools have robots tending them, much of the angst over finding skilled operators falls by the wayside. Not only that, but with some additional investment in automated workholding, machine monitoring software, in-process probing systems and no small amount of effort and planning, machine shops can gain a shift or two of unattended operation.
It won’t be easy—and some will be more successful at it than others. But rest assured that American manufacturing will find its way past this seemingly disastrous situation, just as it has so many others.
Except for one thing: Robots can’t program themselves—not yet at least. Nor can they program the CNC equipment they’re responsible for keeping operational. Until they’re able to perform this complex task, the machining and sheet metal fabrication world will still need CNC programmers—people skilled in manufacturing and proficient with computers and software systems.
There’s certainly no lack of people with these skillsets. Those who belong to Generation Z and even many Millennials began using mice and keyboards while still mastering their ABCs. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to teaching them about manufacturing, CNC machine tools and the most effective way to drive end mills and turning tools through big chunks of metal. It takes years of training and experience before most shop folks make the leap to programming, during which shops will continue to struggle with the ongoing shortage of skilled CAM operators.
Even here, though, there’s good news on the horizon: CAM systems are getting smarter by the day, thus lowering the proficiency bar to some degree. Automated feature recognition, knowledge-based machining, advanced toolpath simulation and digital twins are just a few of the CAM technologies making programming more of a technical exercise than the tribal knowledge-inspired art form it has long been.
No Tricks, Just Hard Work
There are very few “tricks” to programming CNC machine tools. Developing accurate, efficient toolpaths depends in large part on the programmer’s skill as a machinist, together with the CAM software’s capabilities. The job is getting easier as CAM becomes more intelligent, but it remains challenging work—and very few machine shops can boast they have no room for improvement.