The machining and machinery industry manufactures metal parts that are used to make machines, tools, and other machine parts. In other words, the industry creates metal machines that make other machines. The machining and machinery industry also produces parts for such items as engines, tools, and other machinery. It is, in effect, the first stage of the manufacturing process. This industry covers, for example, the manufacture of boring or jig machines that produce nuts and bolts, as well as the production of the nuts and bolts themselves.
A mechanic performs minor repair work on a machine.
Although humans have used wheels and other tools since the dawn of history, the use of machine tools is relatively recent. When the Scottish inventor James Watt experimented with steam engines in the mid-1700s, he could not find anyone who could drill a perfect hole; thus his engines leaked steam. Then in 1775, Englishman John Wilkinson invented the first relatively accurate machine tool, a mill to bore cylinders for Watt’s steam engine.
Several years later, Matthew Murray, Joseph Clement, and Richard Murray developed the planer, which could be used to smooth holes and flat surfaces to the necessary degrees. Henry Maudslay introduced the concept of precision to heavy machinery. Previously only watches and scientific instruments were made with this degree of precision. The early 1880s saw the development of the first screw-cutting lathe, which remains the standard today. Also about that time, electric motors began making major improvements in industrial productivity.
This period in the 19th century, which came to be known as the industrial revolution, brought about the mass production of many products. As new entrepreneurs and inventors emerged, the number of manufacturing plants on both sides of the Atlantic grew, as did the demand for machine tools and equipment.
The United States gradually became the principle producer of machine tools. The most rapid growth came, however, during World Wars I and II when there was a huge demand for tanks, planes, jeeps, ships, and guns. Machines had to be devised to turn out the required parts. After World War II, the numbers and types of consumer goods that Americans desired continued to increase, and the mass-production methods developed for war were converted and improved to accommodate those demands.
Electrical control mechanisms were refined during the 1940s, and when computers were introduced into industry, the nature of many manufacturing operations changed. Automated equipment, including robotics, now perform many operations formerly done by machine operators and other precision metalworkers. Computer-controlled equipment is being used to program machines and to design and manufacture machine tools. As technology continues to advance, machines are becoming increasingly more sophisticated and able to produce highly precise machined parts.
People often think of the machining and machinery industry as being limited to operating machine tools. A machine tool is a power-driven machine, not portable by hand, that is used to shape or form metal by cutting, impact, pressure, electrical techniques, or by a combination of these processes. Operating a machine tool, however, is just one of the many occupations in the machining and machinery industry.
To remain competitive, companies must invent, improve, and anticipate the future needs of its customers. To accomplish these goals, the industry needs a variety of competent and creative workers. In this industry, the development process begins with research engineers, and in some cases, industrial designers, who analyze market needs and decide what new products are in demand. They are usually part of a team that includes marketing specialists, production personnel, sale representatives, and manufacturing experts. Once the research team has envisioned a new product, design engineers and technicians devise the method of its construction.
A manufacturing engineer then designs the machines, or the configuration of equipment, that will construct the product. Once the product has been designed, the rest of the manufacturing process simply involves creating the item. However, depending on what the product is - a mold for an injection-molding machine, a plastic component for a cellular phone, or a component part for another machine, for example - the subsequent production steps will vary.
Many types of workers are involved in all aspects of the machining and machinery industry. For example, in addition to design engineers and industrial designers, there are workers such as general maintenance mechanics, who operate and repair machines and mechanical equipment. More complex power-generating equipment in industrial plants is operated and maintained by stationary engineers, who receive specialized training.
Some workers, like boilermakers and millwrights, install huge pieces of machinery. Precision machinists construct machines, while layout workers and job setters prepare workpieces and machines for operation. Industrial engineers devise efficient processes that use machines and workers together, and in manufacturing, mechanical engineers develop the specifications for machines and tools.
Instrument makers design the electrical equipment that measures and regulates machine operation, while numerical control tool programmers write the computer instructions to run machines. Precision metalworkers, such as tool and die makers and mold makers, design and produce dies and molds that manufacture products with machines. Fluid power technicians install and maintain component parts of machines. Finally, in the field of nondestructive testing, industrial radiographers and laser technicians utilize techniques to determine the quality of products made by machines and components that will be used in machines.
Each of the careers in this industry offers its own opportunities for advancement. Workers with the best potential, however, are those who become skilled at what they do, seek further training or education, and always remain aware that changing technology and a global economy will affect jobs and opportunities in their industry. Trade associations and unions, in an effort to improve the skill level of workers and keep them in the industry, often offer multiple levels of training and certification. Some are short-term programs, but many last several years because of the knowledge required in specific jobs.
In order to advance in their careers, some workers who enter the machining and machinery industry choose to travel the road from apprentice to journey worker. Others choose to move from programming or tool and die making to design, while still others become trainers and supervisors or move into technical sales and customer support. Those who dream of owning their business should remember that most of the small businesses in this industry are owned by people who came up through the ranks.
The state of the machining and machinery industry is closely tied to economic conditions. However, even when the economy improves as it did in the latter part of the 1990s, there seems to be a lag time of about one year before machine tool shipments reflect that improvement. Also, industry analysts say that uncertainty has started to affect manufacturing executives who are deciding whether to invest in new machinery. They cite several factors that are dimming prospects for increased factory capital spending. These include an emerging crunch in credit, which is shrinking the money available for capital loans that would be used to purchase new machinery.
A steam turbine rotor in its casing during manufacture
Statistics on machine tool consumption indicate that the machine tool industry went into a slump in the early 1980s, and despite periods of increased orders, it has never completely come back. Analysts do see some bright spots, however. The automotive industry, which accounts for almost half of machine tool orders, needs to replace some of its aging equipment. Also, there has been growth in the nonelectric machinery industry, which includes food-processing equipment.
Although economic conditions did improve during the late 1990s, employment opportunities did not increase proportionately. Many companies laid off machining workers during the past decade and are hiring fewer workers than in the past. In addition, automation is affecting employment opportunities for some workers in the machining industry (although automation does create some machinist jobs in the area of machine repair, supervision, and maintenance). The manufacturing industry has been revolutionized by highly productive, computer-controlled machining and turning centers that change their own tools; transfer machines that completely machine, assemble, and test mass-produced products; and innovative metal removal and forming systems. Robots and robotic equipment are becoming more common and are being used in many areas where the work is tedious, repetitious, or dangerous. Automated inspection equipment, such as electronic sensors, cameras, X-rays, and lasers, is increasingly being used to test and inspect parts during production.
All of these factors have affected the machinery industry. The use of computers and automated equipment is resulting in fewer opportunities for machine operators and layout workers. According to Occupational Outlook Handbook, employment of industrial machinery repairers and machinists is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2014. A decline is expected in the employment of tool and die makers and for computer numerical control (CNC) programmers due to strong foreign competition,. However, despite sluggish employment growth in the machining industry, the U.S. Department of Labor predicts that job opportunities for machinists will be excellent due to the increased numbers of automated production processes that require the supervision of skilled machinists and a relative lack of candidates entering training programs. Even if actual production levels fall, machinists are still needed to repair, monitor, and control expensive automated equipment. Employers value the skills that good machinists bring to manufacturing, as they are often versatile and able to handle a large number of contingencies. For this reason, skilled machine workers will be in demand for the foreseeable future.
For More Information
For information on scholarships as well as facts about the machine tool industry, contact
Association for Manufacturing Technology
7901 Westpark Drive
McLean, VA 22102-4206
For information about the custom precision manufacturing industry, contact
National Institute for Metalworking Skills
3251 Old Lee Highway, Suite 205
Fairfax, VA 22030-1504
Email: [email protected]
National Tooling & Machining Association
9300 Livingston Road
Fort Washington, MD 20744-4988
For information on careers and educational programs in the machining and machinery industry, contact
Precision Machined Products Association
6700 West Snowville Road
Brecksville, OH 44141-3292
For information about career opportunities in tooling and machining as well as skill development programs, contact
Precision Metalforming Association and Educational Foundation
6363 Oak Tree Boulevard
Independence, OH 44131-2500
Words to Know
Computer numerical control (CNC): A self-contained numerical control (NC) system for a machine tool utilizing a dedicated computer that is directed by stored instructions to perform some or all of the basic NC functions; can become part of a direct numerical control (DNC) system.
Custom precision manufacturing industry: Composed of mostly small businesses; companies design and manufacture special tools, dies, jigs, fixtures, gauges, special machines, and precision machined parts.
Direct numerical control (DNC) system: Connects from two to more than 50 machine tools, each with its own NC or CNC unit, to a common supervisory computer.
Electrical discharge machining (EDM): A method of removing metal by a series of rapidly recurring electrical discharges between a tool (electrode) and a work-piece in the presence of a dielectric fluid; could be defined as one of several types of chipless machining processes.
Electronic control: The use of electronic techniques to control machines, machine tools, power, and data.
Fluid power industry: Composed of three large segments: mobile hydraulic, industrial hydraulic, and pneumatic; includes hydraulic and pneumatic pumps, cylinders, rotary actuators, motors, valves, and other products.
Industrial revolution: Started in Great Britain in the late 18th century and spread to Europe and the United States by the early 19th century; changed the way goods were produced from individual craftspeople to mass production; ultimately changed societal structure of those countries.
Laser beam machining: A chipless machining process for cutting, drilling, slotting, or scribing metal parts.
Machinery: A group or groups of parts that are arranged to perform a useful function, such as an automobile, appliance, or manufacturing equipment; some machines give people a mechanical advantage in completing a task while others perform functions that no person could do for long, continuous periods.
Machine tools: Tools used on various machines for cutting, drilling, and so forth; also, machines that are used in manufacturing facilities.
Machining: Any one or group of operations that changes the shape, surface finish, or mechanical properties of a material by using special tools and equipment.
Measurement and control system: Used in most industries to measure and analyze the variables involved in production operations, including measurements of pressure, temperature, composition, and flow; controls automatically make adjustments to maintain smooth operations.
Nondestructive testing (NDT): Test that examines an object or material but does not affect its future usefulness; methods include visual-optical, liquid-penetrant, magnetic-particle, eddy current, ultrasonic, and radiographic. NDT can detect internal or external imperfections; determine structure, composition, or material properties; and assess quality.
Numerical control: Numeric data stored on magnetic tapes or disks, or punched tapes or cards, that operates machine tools; the data are usually produced by computer from design data.
Precision metal worker: Generic term that refers to tool and die makers, mold makers, and precision machinists. Tool: A device, instrument, or machine that performs an operation, such as a hammer, lathe, screwdriver, or drill press.
Manufacturing; Boilermaker and Mechanic; Fluid Power Technician; General Maintenance Mechanic; Industrial Designer; Industrial Engineering Technician; Industrial Engineer; Industrial Machinery Mechanic; Industrial Radiographer; Instrument Maker and Repairer; Instrumentation Technician; Job and Die Setter; Laser Technician; Layout Worker; Machine Tool Operator; Mechanical Engineering Technician; Mechanical Engineer; Millwright; Numerical Control Tool Programmer; Precision Machinist; Precision Metalworker; Stationary Engineer