For Vincennes University’s Manufacturing Technology Department, perfection is the average. Just look at the placement of graduates from the Precision Machining Technology, Advanced CNC Extension, and Advanced Manufacturing programs. Professor Jonathan Vennard said, “It wouldn’t matter if we were busting at the seams right now; we still couldn’t fill every open job.” That isn’t to say that VU doesn’t try, though. In fact, it is one of the best fighters in the battle against the growing skills gap in the US.
VU’s Manufacturing Technology Department offers both two-year and four-year degrees, as well as various manufacturing certificates. Vennard’s focus is on the Precision Machining associate’s degree curriculum and its successive programs. These programs focus on tool and die applications, and they can take students all the way from manual machining to complicated CNC toolpathing to upper management responsibilities.
To ensure his students leave VU with the most practical knowledge they possibly can, Vennard emphasizes hands-on learning. The ratio for lab time to classroom time is roughly 9:1. He said, “We know time on task is more important than anything we could do in the classroom.” The average associate’s degree student is spending 27 hours a week working on projects. By the time they graduate, they have hundreds of hours of experience under their belt. As they work through their projects, the students have constant access to their expert instructors, all of whom are VU graduates themselves.
Full and Well Rounded
The manufacturing programs are widely considered to be well-rounded. The department has a full manual machining shop as well as a full CNC machining shop. During the first semester of the Precision Machining Technology program, students learn manual milling. The second semester introduces students to CNC machining with Mastercam® CAD/CAM software (CNC Software, LLC, Tolland, CT), chosen because it is what the overwhelming majority of graduates will use in their future careers. Vennard believes the best way to learn the Mastercam interface is with camInstructor training materials which are available in an online format or textbooks. This platform offers fully online and hybrid learning options. Each course comes with video instruction, step-by-step printable instructions, and unit tests. Students who complete the Mill 2D, Mill 3D, Lathe, and/or 4-axis courses receive certifications through camInstructor that are recognized by CNC Software, LLC, as well.
“When I came into this teaching position a few years ago, one of the goals I had was to structure the CNC program a little better,” said Vennard. In the past, the curriculum was fairly loose. Vennard often had to take time outside of class to create videos and demonstrations himself. When the pandemic demanded even more videos because of virtual learning, he was completely overwhelmed. Vennard was already using camInstructor to teach his students CNC programming with spectacular results. When VU graduate and Mastercam Senior Education Market Specialist Clint Smith suggested using camInstructor for teaching the CAD/CAM portion, Vennard took his advice.
Since its installation, the curriculum has cut Vennard’s prep time by 80 percent. The camInstructor platform is entirely digital and accessible around the clock, but it pairs perfectly with in-person instruction. Vennard feels that it is still crucial that his students be able to ask questions as they go along and to work with the machines, but the ability to refer back to any video clip at any time is invaluable. “That’s one of the best features of this learning package. You can customize it to fit your approach,” he said. When he has questions or needs guidance himself, Vennard reaches out to the camInstructor Team, and he knows that they are always available by email or phone to help him work through a situation.
VU students begin the project-based CAD/CAM learning within camInstructor in their second year. For the first eight weeks, Vennard allows them to do nothing but create part models and set up their Tool Libraries. He said, “I continuously tell my students that they can check all the boxes and put in all the right information on the toolpaths, but if they can’t draw a part from a print correctly, the toolpath won’t be correct.” Vennard expects his students to have a solid grasp of geometry before starting in on applying toolpaths. When they do begin after the fall break, they do so with 2D wireframe geometry and work up to more complicated programming.
Vennard starts with the 2D mill and 2D lathe project-based tutorials. As he works through the projects with his students, he shows them more than just the toolpaths. “I want them to know how to do it efficiently, how to speed up the process to get more throughput when they get to industry applications,” he said. Vennard knows that true cognitive flexibility and resourcefulness can’t be taught. It can be sowed and encouraged, with the right framework. camInstructor is that framework. It leaves room for creativity while supporting its users with solid scaffolding of foundational knowledge. Vennard said, “The video and I might explain material a little differently, but we get to the same end point. It’s important that our students understand that there are many different ways to solve a problem.”
The curriculum takes students through creating a part step-by-step. Vennard describes it as “structured but open.” He said, “Each lesson builds into the next really well. The way it’s set up gives the students confidence and the tools they need to find a solution.” Vennard knows from experience that the best employees are the ones who know how to use their resources to troubleshoot a situation or find new ways of improving old processes. For this reason, he does not expect rote memorization from his students. In fact, Vennard’s first conversation with his class is to tell his students that they’ll never have to memorize anything other than G & M code. He says it’s just not helpful. He, with support from his curriculum, encourages problem-solving and exploring different resources. Students graduating the Precision Machining Technology program do so as creative, independent individuals with applicable knowledge.
For those students interested in continuing on after earning their associate’s degree in Precision Machining Technology, VU offers an Advanced CNC Extension associate’s degree. The advanced program begins immediately in the summer semester after the first associate’s program ends. It consists of 14 weeks of intensive work. Most weeks, the students are in class for over 36 hours – almost the equivalent of a full-time job. The Advanced CNC Extension program picks up where the Precision Machining Technology program leaves off: 3D toolpathing. Over the course of the summer, the students become experts in advanced machining techniques like C-axis lathe work, 4- and 5-axis milling, and 3+2 positional cutting. Vennard said, “That’s where we teach our students everything from complex fixturing to in-process inspections.” The camInstructor platform even gives student access to Wire EDM curriculum and material, although it is not covered in class.
Building Talent and Intelligence
This advanced degree, when completed after the Precision Machining degree, also counts as the third year of the Advanced Manufacturing bachelor’s degree. This program covers topics such as business management, job procurement, job quoting, and human resources. Vennard said, “It’s really tailored to the individuals who are considering upper management roles. The other 80 percent of students, they like the machining.” Graduates of this program leave VU with two associate’s degrees and one bachelor’s degree – usually in three years.
And they never have to worry about finding a job. The job offers VU graduates field, outnumber incoming students, that the University is currently offering the Intech Tuition Scholarship. The scholarship allows any US or international student to attend at in-state cost while staying on VU’s residential campus. Even still, the school must headhunt for students.
Vennard wishes that people interested in machining understood that they don’t have to be naturally talented or have a genius IQ to excel in the field. (What he finds most valuable is the talent and intelligence grown over years of trial and error). Vennard explained, “For about the last five years, I’ve really tried to make a point to say that being a genius isn’t important or expected. The most successful people in our industry are the ones who are willing to work hard.To struggle a little, even. And use their resources to find an answer.” Luckily, that is precisely the type of graduate VU produces.
Building Talent and Intelligence