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Nature of the Work
* A few weeks of on-the-job training is sufficient for most workers to learn basic machine operations, but several years are required to become a skilled operator.
* Projected employment change in the occupation varies. Employment of most manual cutting and forming machine tool operators, and sheet metal workers, is expected to decline. Operators of automated machines will grow.
Consider the parts of a toaster, such as the metal or plastic housing or the lever that lowers the toast. These parts, and many other metal and plastic products, are produced by metalworking and plastics-working machine operators. In fact, machine tool operators in the metalworking and plastics industries play a major part in producing most of the consumer products on which we rely daily.
In general, these workers can be separated into two groupsthose who set up machines for operation and those who tend the machines during production. Set-up workers prepare the machines prior to production and may adjust the machinery during operation. Operators and tenders, on the other hand, primarily monitor the machinery during operation, sometimes loading or unloading the machine or making minor adjustments to the controls. Many workers do bothset up and operate the equipment. Because the set-up process requires an understanding of the entire production process, setters usually have more training and are more highly skilled than those who simply operate or tend machinery. As new automation simplifies the setup process, however, less skilled workers are also increasingly able to set up machines for operation.
Setters, operators, tenders, and set-up operators are usually identified by the type of machine with which they work. Some examples of specific titles are screw machine operator, plastics-molding machine set-up operator, punch press operator, and lathe tender. Although some workers specialize in one or two types of machinery, many are trained to set up or operate a variety of machines. Job duties usually vary based on the size of the firm and on the type of machine being operated.
Metalworking machine setters and operators set up and tend machines that cut and form all types of metal parts. Traditionally, set-up workers plan and set up the sequence of operations according to blueprints, layouts, or other instructions. They adjust speed, feed, and other controls, choose the proper coolants and lubricants, and select the instruments or tools for each operation. Using micrometers, gauges, and other precision measuring instruments, they may also compare the completed work with the tolerance limits stated in the specifications.
Although there are many different types of metalworking machine tools that require specific knowledge and skills, most operators perform similar tasks. Whether tending grinding machines that remove excess material from the surface of machined products or presses that extrude metal through a die to form wire, operators usually perform simple, repetitive operations that can be learned quickly. Typically, these workers place metal stock in a machine on which the operating specifications have already been set. They may watch one or more machines and make minor adjustments according to their instructions. Regardless of the type of machine they operate, machine tenders usually depend on skilled set-up workers for major adjustments when the machines are not functioning properly.
Plastics-working machine operators set up and tend machines that transform plastic compoundschemical-based products that can be produced in powder, pellet, or syrup forminto a wide variety of consumer goods such as toys, tubing, and auto parts. These products are produced by various methods, of which injection molding is the most common. The injection molding machine heats a plastic compound and forces it into a mold. After the part has cooled and hardened, the mold opens and the part is released. Many common kitchen products are produced using this method. To produce long parts such as pipes or window frames, an extruding machine is usually employed. These machines force a plastic compound through a die that contains an opening of the desired shape of the final product. Yet another type of plastics working technique is blow molding. Blow-molding machines force hot air into a mold which contains a plastic tube. As the air moves into the mold, the plastic tube is inflated to the shape of the mold and a plastic container is formed. The familiar 2-liter soft drink bottles are produced using this method.
Regardless of the process used, plastics-working machine operators check the materials feed, the temperature and pressure of the machine, and the rate at which the product hardens. Depending on the type of equipment in use, they may also load material into the machine, make minor adjustments to the machinery, or unload and inspect the finished products. Plastics-working machine operators also remove clogged material from molds or dies. Because molds and dies are quite costly, operators must exercise care to avoid damaging them.
Metalworking and plastics-working machine operators are increasingly being called upon to work with numerically controlled (NC) equipment. These machine tools have two major componentsan electronic controller and a machine tool. Today, most NC machines are computer numerically controlled (CNC), which means that the controllers are computers. The controller directs the mechanisms of the machine tool through the positioning and machining described in the program or instructions for the job. A program could contain, for example, commands that cause the controller to move a drill bit to certain spots on a workpiece and drill a hole at each spot.
Each type of CNC machine tool, such as a milling machine, a lathe, or a punch press, performs a specific task. A part may be worked on by several machines before it is finished. CNC machines are often used in computer-integrated manufacturing systems. In these systems, automated material handling equipment moves workpieces through a series of work stations where machining processes are computer numerically controlled. In some cases, the workpiece is stationary and the tools change automatically. Although the machining is done automatically, numerically controlled machine tools must be set up and used properly in order to obtain the maximum benefit from their use. These tasks are the responsibility of NC machine-tool operators or, in some instances, machinists. (See the statement on machinists and tool programmers elsewhere in the Handbook.)
Like the duties of manual metal and plastics machine operators, the duties of numerical-control machine-tool operators vary. In some shops, operators tend just one machine. More likely, however, they tend a number of machines or do some programming. As a result, the skill requirements of these workers vary from job to job. Although there are many variations in operators' duties, they generally involve many of the tasks described below.
Working from given instructions, operators load programs that are usually stored on disks into the controller. They also securely position the workpiece, attach the necessary tools, and check the coolants and lubricants. Many NC machines are equipped with automatic tool changers, so operators may also load several tools in the proper sequence. This entire process may require a few minutes or several hours, depending on the size of the workpiece and the complexity of the job.
A new program often must be adjusted to obtain the desired results. If the tool moves to the wrong position or makes a cut that is too deep, the program must be changed so the job is done properly. A machinist or tool programmer usually performs this function, occasionally with the assistance of a computer automated design program that simulates the operation of machine tools. (See the statement on machinists and tool programmers elsewhere in the Handbook.) However, a new generation of machine tool technology, known as direct numerical control, allows operators to make changes to the program and enter new specifications using minicomputers on the shop floor.
Because NC machine tools are very expensive, an important duty of operators is to monitor the machinery to prevent situations that could result in costly damage to the cutting tools or other parts. The extent to which the operator performs this function depends on the type of job as well as the type of equipment being used. Some NC machine tools automatically monitor and adjust machining operations. When the job has been properly set up and the program has been checked, the operator may only need to monitor the machine as it operates. These operators often set up and monitor more than one machine. Other jobs require frequent loading and unloading, tool changing, or programming. Operators may check the finished part using micrometers, gauges, or other precision inspection equipment to ensure that it meets specifications. Increasingly, however, this function is being performed by NC machine tools that are able to inspect products as they are produced.
CNC machines are changing the nature of the work that machine setters and operators perform. Computer-controlled machines simplify setups by using formerly tested computer programs for new workpieces. If a workpiece is similar to one previously produced, small adjustments can be made to the old program instead of developing a new program from scratch. Also, operators of this equipment have less physical interaction with the machinery or materials. They primarily act as "troubleshooters," monitoring machines on which the loading, forming, and unloading processes are often controlled by computers.
Most metalworking and plastics-working machine operators work in areas that are clean, well lit, and well ventilated. Regardless of setting, all of these workers operate powerful, high-speed machines that can be dangerous if strict safety rules are not observed. Most operators wear protective equipment, such as safety glasses and earplugs to protect against flying particles of metal or plastic and noise from the machines. Other required equipment varies by work setting and machine. For example, workers in the plastics industry who work near materials that emit dangerous fumes or dust must wear face masks or self-contained breathing apparatuses.
Most metal and plastics-working machine operators work a 40-hour week, but overtime is common during periods of increased production. Because many metalworking and plastics-working shops operate more than one shift daily, some operators work nights and weekends.
The work requires stamina because operators are on their feet much of the day and may do moderately heavy lifting. Approximately one-third of these workers are union members; the metalworking industries have a higher rate of unionization than the plastics industry.
Metalworking and plastics-working machine operators held about 1,512,000 jobs in 1996. Of these, 1,420,000 were manual machine operators, and 92,000 were NC machine operators. About 8 out of every 10 metalworking and plastics-working machine operators are found in five manufacturing industriesfabricated metal products, industrial machinery and equipment, miscellaneous plastic products, transportation equipment, and primary metals. The following tabulation shows the distribution of employment of metalworking and plastics-working machine operators by detailed occupation.
Cutting and forming machine tool setters and operators 723,000 Molding machine setters and operators 228,000 Sheet metal workers and duct installers 120,000 Combination machine tool setters and operators 96,000 Numerical control machine operators 92,000 Metal fabricators, structural metal products 46,000 Plating machine setters and operators 42,000 Heat treating machine setters and operators 21,000 All other metal and plastics-working machine operators 144,000
Metalworking and plastics-working machine operators learn their skills on the job. Trainees begin by observing and assisting experienced workers, often in formal training programs. Under supervision they may supply material, start and stop the machine, or remove finished products from the machine. As part of their training they advance to more difficult tasks like adjusting feed speeds, changing cutting tools, or inspecting a finished product for defects. Eventually they become responsible for their own machines.
The complexity of equipment largely determines the time required to become an operator. Most operators learn the basic machine operations and functions in a few weeks, but they may need several years to become a skilled operator or to advance to the more highly skilled job of set-up operator.
Set-up operators often need a thorough knowledge of the machinery and of the products being produced. They may study blueprints, plan the sequence of work, make the first production run, and determine which adjustments need to be made. Strong analytical abilities are particularly important to perform this job. Some companies have formal training programs for set-up operators that combine classroom instruction with on-the-job training.
CNC machine tool operators undergo similar training. Working under a supervisor or an experienced operator, trainees learn to set up and run one or more types of numerically controlled machine tools. They usually learn the basics of their jobs within a few months. However, the length of the training period varies with the number and complexity of the machine tools the operator will run and with the individual's ability. If the employer expects operators to write programs, trainees may attend programming courses offered by machine tool manufacturers or technical schools.
Although no special education is required for most operating jobs, employers prefer to hire applicants with good basic skills. Many require employees to have a high school education and to read, write, and speak English. This is especially true for NC machine operators, who may need to be retrained often in order to learn to operate new equipment. Because machinery is becoming more complex and shop floor organization is changing, employers increasingly look for persons with good communication and interpersonal skills. Mechanical aptitude, manual dexterity, and experience working with machinery are also helpful. Those interested in becoming metalworking or plastics-working machine operators can improve their employment opportunities by completing high school courses in shop, mathematics, and blueprint reading and by gaining a working knowledge of the properties of metals and plastics.
Advancement for operators usually takes the form of higher pay, although there are some limited opportunities for operators to advance to new positions as well. For example, they can become multiple machine operators, set-up operators, or trainees for the more highly skilled positions of machinist or tool and die maker. Manual machine operators can move on to CNC equipment when it is introduced in their establishments. Some set-up workers and CNC operators may advance to supervisory positions. CNC operators who have substantial training in NC programming may advance to the higher-paying job of tool programmer. (See the statements on machinists and tool programmers, and tool and die makers elsewhere in the Handbook.)
Divergent employment trends are expected over the 1996-2006 period among the various metalworking and plastics-working machine operators. In general, employment of these workers will be affected by the rate of technological implementation, the demand for the goods they produce, the effects of trade, and the reorganization of production processes. These trends are expected to spur employment growth among NC machine operators, combination machine tool operators, plastics molding machine operators, and a number of miscellaneous operating positions. On the other hand, employment is projected to decline in some of the more traditional operator occupations, such as manual cutting and forming machine tool operators, and sheet metal workers. Despite differing rates of employment change, a large number of metalworking and plastics-working machine operator jobs will become available as workers transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.
One of the most important factors influencing employment change in this occupation is the implementation of labor-saving machinery. In order to remain competitive, many firms are adopting new technologies, such as computer-controlled machine tools, to improve quality and lower production costs. Computer-controlled equipment allows operators to simultaneously tend a greater number of machines and often makes setup easier, thereby reducing the amount of time set-up workers spend on each machine. For these reasons, the lower-skilled positions of manual machine tool operators and tenders are more likely to be eliminated by this new technology because the functions they perform are more easily automated. The spread of new automation will lead to rising employment, however, for NC machine tool operators.
The demand for metalworking and plastics-working machine operators largely mirrors the demand for the parts they produce. Recent growth in the domestic economy, for example, has led to rebounding employment in a number of machine tool operating occupations. In addition, the consumption of plastic products has grown as they have been substituted for metal goods in many consumer and manufacturing products in recent years. Although the rate of substitution may slow in the future, this process is likely to continue and should result in stronger demand for machine operators in plastics than in metalworking. Both industries, however, face stiff foreign competition that is limiting the demand for domestically-produced parts. One way that larger U.S. producers have responded to this competition is by moving production operations to other countries where labor costs are lower. These moves are likely to continue and will further reduce employment opportunities for many metalworking and plastics-working machine tool operators in the United States.
Workers with a thorough background in machine operations, exposure to a variety of machines, and a good working knowledge of the properties of metals and plastics will be best able to adjust to this changing environment. In addition, new shopfloor arrangements will reward workers with good basic mathematics and reading skills, good communication skills, and the ability and willingness to learn new tasks. As workers are called upon to adapt to new production methods and to operate more machines, the number of combination machine tool operators will continue to rise.
Median weekly earnings for most metalworking and plastics-working machine operators were about $440 in 1996. The middle 50 percent earned between $320 and $600. The top 10 percent earned over $770 and the bottom 10 percent earned less than $250. Metal and plastics molding, plating, heat-treating, and other processing machine operators earned somewhat less, about $400 a week. NC machine operators had median weekly earnings of about $520, more than either of these groups.
Earnings of production workers vary considerably by industry. The following tabulation shows 1996 average weekly wages for production workers in manufacturing industries where employment of metalworking and plastics-working machine operators is concentrated.
Transportation equipment $760 Primary metals industries 660 Industrial machinery and equipment 590 Fabricated metal products 530 Rubber and miscellaneous plastics products 470
Workers in occupations closely related to metalworking and plastics-working machine occupations include machinists, tool and die makers, extruding and forming machine operators producing synthetic fibers, woodworking machine operators, and metal patternmakers. Numerical-control machine-tool operators may program CNC machines or alter existing programs, which are functions closely related to those performed by NC machine tool programmers.
For general information about the metalworking trades, contact:
The National Tooling and Machining Association, 9300 Livingston Rd., Fort Washington, MD 20744.
The Precision Machined Products Association, 6700 West Snowville Rd., Brecksville, OH 44141.
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