A Look Forward to Workers Who Think Like EngineersFebruary 1, 2012
Those involved with U.S. manufacturing know we are in the midst of an amazing 3-yr. recovery, a recovery less about job growth and more about automation and productivity. It’s been about process and quality improvements, and streamlining our factories to become the most efficient in the world.
We’ve also witnessed rapid development and expansion of new technologies coupled with the retirement of an aging workforce. This requires manufacturing companies to reassess how they hire and train the next generation of metalforming professionals. Companies can no longer afford to pay top dollar for workers whose skill sets do not extend beyond the ability to bend and weld a piece of sheetmetal. Today’s lean metalforming companies require skilled workers who think like engineers and possess a range of process-design and product-development abilities. We need employees who possess the skills essential to the process of designing, prototyping and manufacturing products.
The U.S. government spends much time and money creating jobs, with little or no emphasis on developing our nation’s ability to hone a workforce that can create and manufacture products for the future. Consider the following: In a 2009 speech, Georgia Tech University president Dr. G.P. Petersen pointed out that Nintendo spent $140 million on research in 2004, more than the entire U. S. federal government budget for educational research. As startling as this is, spending more money on training will not alone solve the problem of educating future metalforming professionals. As an industry, we must determine how to prepare this workforce and identify the skills we should be teaching. Many of the students preparing to enter the workforce in the next few years will work at jobs that do not exist today, use technologies that have not yet been invented and be asked to solve problems that we do not yet recognize.
What work will future die engineers and die makers perform? What skills should they possess? Will die shops still cut and machine dies, or will dies be produced by a net-shape metallic spray deposition process, or perhaps on 3D printers? Will we need programmers and machinists to support CNC machining, or will these processes be replaced by more efficient net-shape manufacturing technology? And, will we even need stamping dies—if new technologies allow us to produce net-shape die components, why not skip the expensive and time-consuming die-building process altogether? We may be able to make sheetmetal parts using new technologies that make stamping presses obsolete.
For many readers, most of this sounds unimaginable. But consider this: Modern die-engineering practices make use of computer-aided engineering tools that employ finite-element methods to help design metal-stamping dies. These computer programs have been derived to analyze and optimize the metalforming process. Not long ago, this technology was limited to highly skilled CAE analysts with a master’s or doctorate degree working in an automotive or steel research center or at a major university. These software codes now are so extensively developed and user-friendly that tool and die engineers, process engineers and estimators routinely use these powerful tools.Twenty years ago, this process was just as unimaginable as any of my projections noted above. MF
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