Why Every Engineer Should Learn Machining
Ian Wright posted on July 17, 2018 |

If you’re an engineer working with machinists, you’ve more than likely had this thought:

“Damn it, why can’t the machinists just make what’s on the drawing?”

On the other hand, if you’re a machinist working with engineers, you’ve probably had this thought:

“Damn it, why can’t the engineers just draw something I can actually make?”

If you happen to be an engineer and a machinist, you’ve no doubt been on both sides of the issue, and perhaps occasionally caught in between.

Engineers and machinists are both essential to any manufacturing operation, but they don’t always see eye-to-eye. While the engineers complain that machinists never follow their instructions, the machinists complain that engineers never annotate their drawings properly. As with most interpersonal conflicts, there’s plenty of blame to go around, but solutions are in short supply.

In an effort to improve these vital working relationships, engineering.com surveyed hundreds of engineers and machinists who shared their opinions, experiences and horror stories. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot that each group can learn from the other.

Survey data collected anonymously between June 28, 2018 and July 4, 2018.  n = 221
Survey data collected anonymously between June 28, 2018 and July 4, 2018. n = 221

What Engineers Say About Machinists

"[There] was a delay when the Model Maker finally admitted he couldn’t machine a depth I needed. I ended up 3D printing the part. Machinists need to realize 3D printing will replace them in many instances unless they are willing to be collaborative."

Let’s face it: engineers aren’t exactly famed for their people skills. But no engineer is an island, and if you work in manufacturing, that means collaborations between many different people with many different skillsets is a regular part of the job. When we asked engineers to tell us about their best experiences working with machinists, their answers always came down to communication.

Here’s what a few of the respondents said:

  • “We worked through the night but in the end we delivered good parts to the customer and I gained a fantastic work partner just by listening and rolling up my sleeves.”
  • “Having a good working relationship with frequent discussions is key to producing great parts every time.”
  • “When they do communicate well, it’s always with the intent to better understand my needs and then offer helpful, creative insights to improve the design.”

Conversely, although it wasn’t the only issue, poor communication was certainly the most frequently cited—one in three engineers said that a lack of communication is their most common complaint with machinists.

Looking at these results, one can’t help but wonder how often ‘Failure to conform to drawing specs’, the second most common complaint, was actually the result of the first. Of course, every relationship is a two-way street, and there are great insights to be gained from seeing things from the perspective of the other side.


What Machinists Say About Engineers

"Most engineers have this complex and it’s rare to find a 'good one.' Fresh out of school with zero work experience trying to tell us that X can be machined and mad at machinists when we can’t. They make it seem that we are the incompetent ones."

We asked machinists to tell us about their best and worst experiences working with engineers. The quote above represents a common theme among the responses: machinists believe that engineers don’t respect their expertise. Another machinist cited, “Being yelled at that I can’t make the impossible part with ease and with the lack of information they give you. For instance, 90 corner down in a deep pocket when it could have just been cleared on the mating piece.”

Interestingly, ‘Lack of communication’ was much less frequently cited by machinists as an issue.

However, these results once again suggest that the top two complaints—‘Incomplete drawings/annotations’ and ‘Impossible or unfeasible features’—could potentially be resolved or avoided by improving the communication between engineers and machinists.

Here are a few more examples from our survey respondents:

  • “Designer changes designs just to change them. No rhyme or reason. No benefit for the change. I ask why, he responds, ‘That’s the way it is.’”
  • “An ME had a program that wasn’t running right. Took 2 days to actually get it right since they wouldn’t listen to what the real problem [was] and wanted to fix everything else.”
  • “When I received a drawing with chained dimensions adding up to a length longer than the dimensioned overall length and a complete lack of datum surfaces, I asked for it to be reviewed. The reply was with contempt, ‘You’re such a nuisance. What’s your problem? Just do your job!’ It took three attempts at getting clarification before management stepped in.”

The point here is not to suggest that one side bears more responsibility for this issue than the other. It takes two to communicate, and although there are occasionally cases where a single party is clearly and solely at fault, the situation is rarely so simple. The stakes, however, are quite clear.


Improving Collaboration Between Engineers and Machinists

“Being able to speak jargon in both worlds and demonstrate hands-on has helped each group better understand where they can add value without developing animosity. My engineers are getting dirty and my machinists are helping out with project planning.”

Engineers and machinists need to be able to collaborate effectively in order to do their jobs, and that collaboration requires communication above all else. Both sides appear to recognize these issues, as indicated when we asked engineers and machinists, “What one thing could a machinist/engineer do to make your job easier?”

Here are the results:

Note that in both cases, the top answer is essentially the same: 45 percent of engineers said constructive criticism from machinists would make their jobs easier, and 43 percent of machinists said that engineers asking for feedback during design review would make their jobs easier. So, if most of us are on the same page, why is there still this apparent tension?

The most plausible is answer is a knowledge gap.


Engineering or Machining – Why Not Both?

I’m able to do more on both fronts. It’s also showed the sharp divide between the two sides. Both are better when they are combined. A machinist is better when they know engineering. An engineer is better when they understand machining.

Two of the results from our survey are particularly interesting when placed side-by-side. We asked engineers how often they are required to work with machinists, as well how much hands-on machining experience they have. Here are the results:

More than half our respondents work with machinists frequently, and more than half have less than three years of hands-on machining experience, or no experience at all. There seems to be an obvious disconnect here—a gap in knowledge that affects how engineers and machinists communicate. These results would certainly explain why machinists so frequently cite impossible features and incomplete drawings as their biggest complaint with engineers. Without at least some hands-on experience with a machine, how can you know what it’s truly capable of?

Not surprisingly, many engineers have taken this heart and chosen to improve their knowledge of machining. Then there are the machinists who choose to become engineers. We surveyed respondents from both groups.

As you might expect, this group’s answers to the question ‘How much hands-on machining experience do you have?’ were significantly different. Here are the results:

We asked the respondents who were engineers and machinists to tell us how being both affected their career. Here’s what some of those who started their careers as engineers had to say:

  • “It’s very interesting to push the limits of design, whether for parts I will make, or parts I am making for someone else. Being a machinist allowed me to quickly adopt better design principles.”
  • “Knowing what can and can’t be done puts you ahead of the competition. It also made me blatantly aware of what engineers ask for that can’t be done, and how often or ridiculous it can be.”
  • “I’m at a small company where I do the design and machining. Doing both gives me a better perspective on the design process. During the design process I can look at it from a machinist’s point of view and design according to how hard it will be to manufacture.”

Learning Machining as an Engineer

"I graduated engineering in 2001 when the Tech Bubble burst and was laid off several times trying to get employment as an engineer. I went back to school for a one-year machinist program and was hired as an engineer at a small manufacturing company while looking for machinist jobs. The machinist background made me much more useful to the production floor, while at the same time I could work on smaller projects myself as I could produce the one-off parts on my own."

If you’re considering an upgrade to your machining IQ, there are plenty of options available. For example, many machine tool manufacturers offer their own courses, either independently or in partnership with colleges and universities.

Haas Automation, for example, established the Haas Technical Education Center (HTEC) Network to help schools acquire new CNC machine tools, ancillary equipment and educational materials. The HTEC Network is made up of over 1,800 schools, colleges and universities throughout North America. For those already equipped with machining know-how and looking to pass it on, the HTEC network also includes five CNC instructor training programs at the following institutions:

DMG MORI Academy is another option for supplementing your machining knowledge, offering courses through training centers or even on site. “DMG MORI Academy has a variety of online and instructor-led courses,” said John Roufis, DMG MORI Academy General Manager. “These include general manufacturing skills, CNC machine programming, CNC machine operation as well as CNC machine maintenance courses. Course recommendations are based on the individual engineer’s skillset and needs.”

(Image courtesy of DMG MORI Academy.)
The company also offers a range of products specifically designed for educational purposes, including programming software, virtual machines and training consoles. DMG MORI Academy’s North American training center is located in Hoffman Estates, just outside Chicago, with numerous other training centers located in Europe and Asia. “Typically, our classes incorporate both generating G-code and optimization of tool paths equally,” Roufis said. The classes can be pitched at the level of machine operators, maintenance staff, or customized to meet a particular company’s requirements.

Regarding the benefits of improving your machining know-how, Roufis had this to say: “Ideally, an engineer that has an understanding of machining has the ability to transfer engineering concepts into physical realizations, sometimes opening their eyes to new possibilities and limitations.”

Of course, much of the educational offerings from machine tool manufacturers will focus on their own brand. That’s great if you’re looking to learn about machining to get more out of a particular machine or brand of machines, but for companies that utilize a host of different machine tool brands, a more brand-agnostic program may be preferable. Tooling U-SME offers online, instructor-led or blended learning courses with a focus on manufacturing workforce development.

“We’re the learning and development group within the Society of Manufacturing Engineers,” said John Hindman, Director of Learning and Performance Improvement at Tooling U-SME. “We assist manufacturers in building sustainable and repeatable training and development programs. We offer over 400 online classes geared toward technical skills, and a good portion of our catalogue is geared toward machining and the engineering side of things.”

Regarding the course offerings that would be most relevant to engineers looking to learn more about machining, Hindman noted two in particular: “We have a basic cutting theory class that’s a really good starting point for folks who want to learn more about machining,” he said. “We have content that’s based around specific controls—FANUC, Mazak, Okuma, etc.—but for engineers who want to learn more about the machining process, I think the most important thing is workholding. That’s where the experienced machinists and operators really stand out, and we do have workholding classes as well.”

(Image courtesy of Tooling U-SME.)
(Image courtesy of Tooling U-SME.)
In fact, the educational resources available from Tooling U-SME go beyond classes, as Hindman explained: “A lot of the engineering programs we have are almost creating a library of content that engineers can refer to if they’re not familiar with a process,” he said, “So, you might have an engineering department that needs to brush up for machining because they’re going to be making a part with CNC machining and they’ve never used that process before.”

The simple fact is that your engineering education doesn’t end when you’re handed your degree. Of course, for many in the profession, that’s no doubt part of what makes a career in engineering so appealing. “Life-long learning is part of what it means to be an engineer,” Hindman said. If you agree with that sentiment but have found yourself struggling to work with machinists, it may be time to explore your education options for machining.


Engineers & Machinists – Manufacturing’s Dynamic Duo

"Not many people know their way around a machine shop. [Learning machining] has made me that much better of an engineer." 

When engineers and machinists come together, they can accomplish great things in manufacturing. By the same token, a breakdown in communication between the two groups can spell disaster. Both sides seem to agree that communication is essential—whether that means getting feedback during the design phase or thoroughly annotating drawings—and yet the tension between them often remains.

One of the best ways to resolve this sort of relationship roadblock is to try and see things from both perspectives, which for engineers means learning more about machining. As one of our survey respondents put it:

“Knowing how stuff is made allows me to design better stuff.”

For more information on machining, check out our feature on The What, Why and How of 5-Axis CNC Machining.

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