Image provided by Haas Automation Inc.
"Every year the machines I buy require people with more advanced skills, and every year the people who apply for work here seem to be less skilled," says the owner of a large midwestern machine shop. That condition isn't unique to that owner or to just the Midwest. All over the country, machine shop managers bemoan the lack of adequately skilled employment candidates and the difficulty in finding adequate training to upgrade the skills of the people they already employ. Until recently, that has been due, at least in part, to a lack of effective training tools. However, that condition appears to be changing thanks to the Internet and distance learning.
Distance learning includes various types of educational programs provided directly to people at work or in their homes over the Internet and computers. These programs enable people who do not live near educational institutions and people whose schedules are too full to attend classes that are offered on campuses, to study course materials at home or at work, and to study at their own pace rather than have to keep up with or wait for others.
There are a number of e-learning companies trying to provide training for manufacturing companies. Tooling University, Immersive Engineering and Oxygen Education are among the leaders in this industry, not only because their products are Internet-based and interactive, but because they grew from manufacturing roots and incorporate an inherent and intuitive understanding of what people really need to learn in order to operate machines and become machinists. Their programs can supply the truly effective and affordable training that machine shop owners and operators need to provide to their employees to keep employee skills in synch with shop needs. (Editor's Note: American Machinist is a partner with Tooling University.)
In the 2006 American Machinist Benchmarking Survey, the leading shops, those whose overall performance rate them in the top 20 percent of all respondents, increased their median number of shop-floor employees more than 14 percent between 2004 and 2006, and 61 percent of those shops anticipate spending more money on capital equipment this year than last year.
At the same time that the best shops are increasing the number of shop-floor employees and increasing the amount of money they spend on capital equipment, more than 90 percent of them report that they give their employees fewer than 40 hours of formal training per year. That translates to less than 45 minutes per week.
However, the best shops also report:
Their average return on investment has increased more than 66 percent over the last three years.
Their average net profit margin is more than 17 percent.
And their median revenue per man-hour was $63.55, almost 6 percent more than the median rate of all other shops.
They have the money to pay for education, and it is obvious from the survey and from interviews that the best shops are more than willing to pay for effective education. However, the problem is that finding educational packages and programs that are effective has been difficult. Traditionally there have been two sources for machine operator/machinist training: Institutional training at community colleges or technical schools and the programs offered by machine tool manufacturers.
Colleges and technical schools usually offer a broad range of courses, and the best provide actual hands-on experience to complement the classroom materials. Unfortunately, the training may not be directly applicable to the machines the student/employee may be required to operate. Also, it can be difficult for students/employees to fit classes into a schedule already filled with full-time work and family obligations. Since each person learns at his or her own pace, some students find regimented coursework tedious and boring while others find the same material coming at them much to quickly.
Training from machine tool manufactures presents its own difficulties. That type of training is certain to apply to the equipment the employee will be working on, but, again, because of different learning rates, the coursework may come too slowly or too quickly. While manufacturers' training typically is detail oriented for the manufacturer's specific machine, it usually is only available to current employees, so prospective employees can't take advantage of it. Also, machine tool manufacturer training usually offers no guarantee that it will be effective. The manufacturer's trainer comes to the shop, provides a certain number of hours of training, then leaves. Often, shop owners say the manufacturer's training is completed whether all of the shop's employees fully grasp all that was taught or not.
Given those options, is should not be surprising that more than 90 percent of the best shops choose the third option, little or no formal training at all.
While we can not provide detailed lists of the programs available at universities, community colleges, and technical schools across the nation, here is a brief run-down of recently developed distance learning programs that offer training specific to machine shops:
Tooling University (www.toolingu.com) is an educational subsidiary of a Cleveland, Ohio, tooling and workholding manufacturing company, Jergens Inc. Tooling University currently offers more than 250 courses that cover topics in machining, manufacturing, welding, quality inspection and related areas. The courses are offered through employers, educational institutions and directly to individuals. The courses primarily use text and videos, but Tooling University also is launching 57 new labs to accompany a variety of courses that use Flash animation to make the coursework more interactive and effective.
A new package from Immersive Engineering in Bloomfield, Mich. (www.immersive.biz) incorporates machine simulations into its online program for CNC operator training. "We are taking a high-end verification tool and joining it in real time to a control panel," says Chris Bien, president of Immersive Engineering. "Our package is driving actual G-code and Mcode for specific machines. You can import programs or create an entire program on the emulated control panel and then run the program to drive the emulated machine as if it were on the shop floor."
The Immersive Engineering package emulates Haas Automation Inc. machines and GE Fanuc controls, and currently is being used in courses at Michigan community colleges that have Haas Technical Centers. However, Immersive Engineering also is offering it to other educational institutions and to companies that have Haas Automation machines. "We believe in the hybrid approach to learning CNC operation," says Bien. "You can't learn CNC machining entirely online, but our package is a great enhancement when coupled with handson machining. The system tracks a student's performance, and when they reach a certain level of competency, instructors can take them over and work on the actual machines."
"I brought the Immersive Engineering package in for simulation of how to run a controller and operate the machine over the Internet," says Gary Walters, a professor at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich. "I can lecture in a class, and students can use the software at school or go home and do this in the evening, on weekends or whenever they want. The result has been very positive. You look into the eyes of the students when they're working the software and you see excitement. They want to dive in and make it work; get involved in it."
Walters notes that he has about 200 students who range in age from 20 years old to 55 years old, and that the online package allows them to learn at their own pace. Because they can use the package at home, they can get as much time working with the material as they need. That is not true of traditional classroom-oriented materials.
Another developer of Internet-based learning products, Oxygen Education of Indianapolis, Ind. (www.o2ed.com) also has seen remarkable results with its products. "We did an installation at a Toyota plant that provided fundamental skills training," says Joe Kitterman, president of Oxygen Education. "In six months, we had 100 employees absorb more than 3,500 hours of training. This was a low-skilled workforce that knew nothing about machining. The plant never noticed the people taking the training because they were doing it from home after work or on weekends. They were sucking up as much training as we could put in front of them, and it has made a very positive difference in their performance at work and in their lives."
Oxygen Education develops tailored programs that can provide basics, starting with fundamental skills, up to the most complex skills for CNC machining and Swiss turning. Oxygen Education also has developed and released an Internet-based training package that is specifically designed to train operators of Haas Automation machines (www.LearnHaas.com). The package is distributed through Haas Factory Outlets and offered as an option to companies buying Haas Automation machines or needing to train employees on existing machines.
Unlike traditional machine manufacturer training, the Oxygen Education package is Internet-based and highly interactive. It uses animation rather than machine emulation to increase interactivity, can be used at work or at home and allows employees to learn at their own pace. "It's not important that one person can learn something in a day or two while another person might need to study that subject for a week or more," says Kitterman. "What is important is that eventually they both completely understand and are able to use the material. Online, interactive training is much more effective at doing that than the traditional programs. If you put students in front of a computer and make them read long pages of text or just watch videos, it doesn't engage them, and they probably won't finish the course and understand the material. When you make it interactive, it becomes almost a game and gets the student engaged and excited."