How One Millwork Engineering Firm is Dealing with the Growing Skills Gap
Isaac Maw posted on March 13, 2019 |
source: Manufacturing Institute
source: Manufacturing Institute

The skills gap is a critical issue in the manufacturing industry. Twenty years ago, the median age of the manufacturing workforce was 40.5 years old—1.1 years older than the median age of the total U.S. non-farm workforce. By 2012, that median age increased to 44.7 years, and the gap between the manufacturing industry and the rest of the U.S workforce doubled. By 2025, the UN predicts that a full quarter of the U.S. manufacturing industry will be age 60 and older.

This means manufacturers across America are experiencing challenges when hiring engineers and manufacturing workers, especially in niches like architectural millwork engineering.

Engineering.com recently spoke with Patrick Dickinson, CEO and Jacob Edmond, Director of Engineering of USA Millwork, an American custom millwork and commercial casework firm. USA Millwork is currently hiring for more than 30 positions in engineering and manufacturing.

Image courtesy of USA Millwork.
Image courtesy of USA Millwork.

“Hiring is definitely a challenge,” said Dickinson. “We're not dealing with a typical engineering discipline.  There are very few engineering programs in schools related to custom millwork. While other fields need electrical engineers, for example, or one of the other key categories in engineering, our engineers have a strong knowledge of how to build things with wood and how to assemble those pieces. That’s one of the issues we’re facing. There are a very limited number of training programs training the types of engineers we need.”

Custom millwork at Anytime Fitness (image courtesy of USA Millwork)

Custom millwork at Anytime Fitness (image courtesy of USA Millwork)

Custom millwork, as an engineering discipline, is more similar to architecture than to mechanical engineering. Millwork engineers design custom interior finishes such as booths, seating, wall paneling and architectural fixtures. Wood, metals, composites or glass may be specified.

“We occupy this area between architecture and engineering, and so historically this industry has filled engineering roles from the shop floor,” said Edmond. “Over the last 30 years, CAD and drafting and engineering technology has evolved, and more tools have become available.”

Because this generation of millwork engineers grew alongside these developments in technology, they’re leaving a steep learning curve for entry-level engineers starting from scratch.

“We're at the tail end of a first generation of millwork engineers’ careers,” Edmond explained. “Guys who started out as mill workers and cabinetmakers and then they learned CAD.  Now, over the last five years or so, we’re starting to fill this role as an entry-level career for people coming out of school. We do architectural drafting, working up architect and interior design drawings, but mill work engineering is also closely aligned with manufacturing. So, there's a lot of CAD and CAM work involved with it, as well.”

In terms of CAD/CAM, USA Millwork primarily uses Microvellum, a software which runs within AutoCAD. This allows them to create new custom designs and to parametrically define new dimensions for existing product designs from a library.  For fabrication, USA Millwork uses Cut Rite and Ardis for programming and optimization of the CNC routers and saws on the shop floor. “We're probably the most sophisticated user of engineering software in the industry,” said Dickinson.
Image courtesy of USA Millwork
Image courtesy of USA Millwork

In addition to engineers, the company also needs shop floor workers—but not as many as they used to. According to Dickinson, automation in the form of CNC machinery, CAD and CAM software has drastically reduced the need for skilled workers and cabinetmakers. “In the last ten years, automation has taken shops down almost fifty percent in terms of labor,” he said. “That was with the advent of CNCs. The engineering is also becoming more sophisticated, and it reduces the skill level on the shop floor. There’s kind of been two phases to it. The initial phase was the huge impact of CNC automation, which did make a big difference in terms of labor; but now, automation is really helping us address the skills gap in our industry. In the past, and in some other shops even today, you might see a worker on the floor who has a master’s degree and is building desks and cabinets and doing all the calculations on the floor. Today, we’re able to essentially engineer a Lego kit for the shop floor. So, automation has really shifted the complexity away from the shop floor.”

“The understanding of how to create a cut bill from an architectural drawing used to live on the shop floor, and now that’s in the engineering,” added Edmond.

Image courtesy of USA Millwork
Image courtesy of USA Millwork

Currently, robotic automation is in use in some woodworking manufacturing operations, in applications such as handling sheet goods or running saws. However, according to USA Millwork, the custom nature of most of their work means robots just aren’t effective. “The type of work we do is still so custom and high end that that level of automation doesn't really benefit us,” said Dickinson.

Just like at USA Millwork, most experts agree automation and education are two major factors in the battle to close the manufacturing skills gap. To find out more, check out Bridging the Skills Gap in the Manufacturing Industry.







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