Peter Ulintz Peter Ulintz
PMA Technical Consultant

A Novel Approach to Apprenticeship Programs

February 27, 2023

This month marks my 200th Tooling by Design column. Much has changed since my first column in 2006. The most profound change: the current state of our workforce.

Across America, industries face supply-chain delays, worker shortages and the need to find places to build new facilities—all due to decades of offshoring and de-emphasizing U.S. manufacturing education and training. According to Manufacturing Tomorrow, the metal fabrication industry expects a 400,000-worker shortage by 2024.

The United States once led the world in the production of machine tools such as power presses, lathes, mills and other equipment used for cutting, forming and finishing. These machines comprise the backbone for parts manufacturing to support the automotive, aerospace, defense, medical and other industries. In 2021, as noted in the January 2023 issue of Fortune, China held more than 30-percent market share of the production of machine tools, followed by Germany and Japan, both at around 13 percent. The United States ranked fourth, leading Italy by a narrow margin. 

The past decade has seen an increasing need to boost U.S. manufacturing capacity, but building and purchasing equipment represents only part of the equation. Manufacturers require highly skilled, educated and adaptable workers willing to retrain and update their skills constantly to keep pace with changing technology. Professional trades such as advanced design and CNC automation programming for manufacturing cells represent two career paths that lack a skilled workforce.

Automotive and other sectors currently need welders and welding engineers with skills and experience in welding of advanced high-strength steels, stainless steels and aluminum. New materials often require new process technologies, with skilled technicians required to implement, optimize and support them.

The emerging technologies of composite sheet forming and additive manufacturing are expected to become more prevalent in the not-so-distant future. As fuel-cell technology, and hybrid and battery electric-powered cars continue to enter the marketplace, specialized skills will be needed not only for their production, but also for maintenance and repairs.

In metal forming, skilled workers generally emerge from company-, union- and government-sponsored apprenticeship programs. But the 82,000 apprentices that recently graduated in the United States, according to the Department of Labor, are dwarfed by nearly 19 million university students whose advanced degrees often become devalued due to the sheer number of graduates.

Metal forming companies struggle to find qualified candidates for their apprenticeship programs because high school and vocational school students are not interested in—or are unaware of—manufacturing opportunities, and often choose construction trades instead, leaving many manufacturing apprenticeships vacant. Here’s a novel approach: Recruit more apprentices from inside of the organization, concentrating intensely on production-equipment operators. 

Many production operators have interests and hobbies that require similar skills as provided by apprenticeship programs. These interests may include building drones and radio-controlled airplanes; restoring cars and houses; fixing appliances, power tools, and lawn-and-garden equipment; and creating art sculptures using welding, soldering and brazing equipment. Some employees apply these skills as part of a side business, demonstrating initiative, confidence and the ability to be self-starters—attributes not easily recognized in day-to-day production operations. 

In general, stamping-press operators are considered low-skill positions in many plants, but they have enormous impact on a business’ bottom line. Some operators run press lines costing hundreds-of-thousands or millions of dollars containing dies that cost more than many houses. They are responsible for maintaining productivity and product quality, minimizing downtime and protecting the integrity of the dies and presses. Doing so requires an understanding of the relationship between the operating parameters of the press and its impact on the coil-feed line and dies. Effectively operating this type of equipment requires knowledge of topics such as math, mechanics and physics. In many instances, no standardized methods exist for training these employees. Employees who “get it” eventually change jobs because they become bored, see little opportunity for advancement or desire career paths that provide more-challenging opportunities.

Metal stampers would benefit greatly from more formally trained press technicians. A press technician is more than an operator. A technician understands slide positions in terms of degrees of rotation, feed angles, sensor signal angles, feed velocity, pressure requirements, signal lag-time and other technical aspects necessary to run a production line. They also understand how these parameters will change with press speed and feed velocity—not to mention the impact of servo-driven presses with programmable slide motions. Press technicians understand the forming process as “math in motion.”

An apprenticeship for press technicians—approximately 1 yr.—would include subject matter transferrable to other apprenticeship programs, creating a career path within the organization. Some technicians may aspire to install, repair or maintain press equipment, others to maintain, repair or build dies. They possess valuable process experience and the necessary technical training that can be applied to these other disciplines, thus providing a supply of apprentices from within the plant.

Another benefit: breaking down barriers between the skilled trades and production. Because skilled-trades apprentices come from the production area, they possess a better understanding of the overall production process and the challenges existing in manufacturing areas. And, die-design and toolroom apprentices must deal with difficulties in aligning a die to the feed line; start new coils strips that bind on lifters or other die components; assess whether a pilot punch has entered the strip far enough to engage the roll lift; obtain correct straightener settings; and deal with erratic or inconsistent part and scrap ejection, and sensor faults. Thus they more likely are able to design and build dies that can be set quickly and accurately, and that more easily handle coil changes and can be maintained in the press. This benefits not only the press technician but the entire company. Presses running unattended allow technicians to run multiple machines with minimal downtime and die damage because these technicians understand the entire process and are supported by those that also understand.

In many companies, the people possessing the most knowledge about the manufacturing process tend to reside in the toolroom or engineering department. In contrast, the closer that people move toward the manufacturing process, the more that they need to know. It makes little sense to have this knowledge reside somewhere else in the plant. Today’s press operators must become highly trained technicians for companies to succeed at a high level. Structured training programs that develop stamping press technicians with upward mobility into more skilled trades would be a novel approach to apprenticeships. MF

Correction: In the January/February 2023 issue of MetalForming, in the Tooling By Design column, Step 2 in Fig. 4 should read “Enter Die Matrix 0.030 in.,” not “0.30 in.”

Industry-Related Terms: CNC, Die, Forming, Lines, Run, Scrap, Strips
View Glossary of Metalforming Terms


See also: Precision Metalforming Association

Technologies: Management, Training


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