Just about everything in our lives is manufactured, most of which by machines. Every machine, however, is brought to life by a machinist. A machinist is an individual who, using metalworking methods and machines, fabricates and constructs machinery for a variety of uses. Being a machinist is being someone who can make anything (or at least make the machine to make it).
The first step in a machinist's job is to take electronic or paper blueprints and figure out where to make cuts on a work piece. The work piece can be anything from steel, aluminum, plastic or whatever is required of the machinist. Depending on the material, the machinist needs to determine at what speed and with what tools to machine the work piece with. Then, after selecting the tools, plan which cuts are being made when and then they mark the work piece with a scribe to show where to make cuts.
After all of the planning, it is time to start machining. The metal working tool—drill press, lathe, milling machine, or other type of machine—is setup and the cuts are made. During this process, the feed rate and machine speed is constantly monitored. The work piece also has to be kept watch of because the cutting action will generate a lot of heat, which will lead to expansion of the metals. While cutting, the machinist will listen for any signs of wear or vibrations and compensate accordingly.
Most modern machinists are trained additionally in CNC machining. CNC, or computer numerical control, is the automated machining of materials with computers. The machinist is responsible for setting up, tuning and monitoring CNC machines. Then there are maintenance machinists, who will repair or make new parts for existing machines. Maintenance machinists are needed in many industries.
Tools of the Trade
The tools that will be used the most by a machinist are within the following categories:
Measuring tools – calipers, rulers, micrometers, indicator tools
Hand tools – these can be anything from screwdrivers to wrenches and can include specialized tools as needed.
Machine tools – these tools are separated by function: drilling, milling, grinding and turning machines, such as lathes.
Holders – these are holders for your work piece, such as clamping kits and jigs, vises and such, as well as tool holders for drill bits, tool posts etc.
Cutting tools – these are what change a block of material into the part being made. These will include drill bits, end mills, face mills, taps and dies, turning tools, and so much more.
There are a large variety of tools that a machinist needs to know how to use. A lot of what will be learned will be learned on the job, but much can be learned in the classroom and from books.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
There are many roads to becoming a machinist. From high school, trigonometry and shop class, as well as courses in blueprint reading and drafting (if available), provide the initial experience. After that, a machinist can be trained entirely on the job, or go through a mix of on the job and classroom training. Formal apprenticeship programs are also a great way to enter the profession, but can be hard to get into. Provided by companies and unions, an apprenticeship program is up to four years of paid training. This includes supervised machining, working full time, classroom instruction, CNC machine training, and more. These programs are usually taught through a local community college or vocational school, and at the cost of the company.
Qualifications include being mechanically and mathematically inclined. Being able to work independently, a machinist needs to be able to perform highly accurate work. Experience with machine tools is a big plus. To help in creating uniform standards, many programs are following guides that will incorporate nationally determined skill sets. These certification programs will open bigger and better doors for the machinist. Advancement can typically be becoming a CNC programmer, tool and die maker, mold maker, or being promoted within a company.
Job Outlook and Earnings
Employment of machinists is expected to decline slightly in the next five years, because of increased productivity and manufacturing in other countries. As a machinist, you will become more and more efficient in the use of machine tools as you perform your duties, and technology will not be a threat to employment as a machinist. Employers prefer to hire machinists and workers with a large range of skills and who can do anything in a well equipped shop. Job opportunities for machinists are going to be strong for quite some time. Because so many are preferring college over production jobs, fewer people are training for the number of jobs that are needed.
Depending on which industry a machinist is entering, the wages earned varied from $12 an hour to upwards of $20 an hour. As an apprentice, you will earn much less than this, but this increases steadily with education, and again your education is provided. The highest paying industries are aerospace and motor vehicles, with median wages above $18 an hour.
Becoming a machinist is a matter of experience, although one can learn things in the classroom. It may take five years or so before you are a qualified machinist, but by then you'll be pretty secure in your job employment possibilities. As long as machines are used by the general populous, then it will not matter how much computers are brought into play, there will need to be a machinist behind the wheel.