Students Master CAD/CAM and Machining and Help Fill Labor Void

Butler Tech (Colerain Township, OH), trains high school students for dozens of skilled professions while they complete academic courses.

The Cincinnati-area school offers a precision machining program that boasts an impressive 95-percent job placement rate and covers advanced manual machining, blueprint reading, CNC machining, milling, gaging, and surface grinding. Graduates go on to promising careers as CNC machinists, engineers, Journeymen, and tool and die makers.

David Fox, Butler Tech instructor, heads the popular program at the Colerain High School Career Center. He explains that his high school students begin the machining program with the basics, becoming familiar with micrometers, calipers, and blueprints. Next comes operating manual mills and lathes, all equipped with digital readouts. Once they have mastered manual machining, eager pupils delve into more advanced manufacturing skills, namely CNC programming and machining. To design parts and run their machines, Butler Tech students learn to use CAD/CAM software (Mastercam® from CNC Software, Inc., Tolland, CT).

“We usually have seven or eight guys rotating between the groups, learning manual and CNC lathe, CNC mill, and CAD/CAM—all at the same time,” said Fox. “And of course, they love Mastercam because they can do so much with it.”

One of the most exciting developments at Butler Tech is the complete overhaul of the machine shop. Butler Tech’s advisory board, dubbed the G-10 committee, secured government grant money and donations from area manufacturers, totaling a whopping $300,000. The windfall provided Butler the resources to renovate its entire shop.

“My shop has just been redone,” said Fox. “I was always telling people I had a 1980s machine shop. I was averaging 16 to 18 kids per year. Now, it’s a 2019 machine shop. A lot of programmers and machinists come in here and say they wish they had my facility.”

The new shop is a big draw for Colerain High School students. Since the renovation, Butler Tech’s enrollment of 18 students per year jumped to 42. Fox’s class size was limited to 28 students.

What was once a cluttered mess, according to Fox, is now a state-of-the-art facility thanks to the donated services of a local architectural firm. The shop includes a CNC laboratory area equipped with CAD/CAM software, a simulated programming area, and a manual machine area. Grinders, mills, lathes, CNC machining centers, and simulators round out the classroom. Machine setup was handled by local manufacturing companies that volunteered time, labor, and forklifts to move equipment and establish electrical hookups.

“It was amazing,” said Fox. “Our blessings are local. Companies are excited to help out. Employers were saying, ‘Let’s get some grant money for this program—we are in dire need of machinists.’”

That dire need is a direct result of the “silver tsunami” that is taking manufacturing and a slew of other American industries by storm. Companies must find ways to attract, train, and retain millennials. Butler Tech is doing its part to fill those employment gaps by preparing students for successful manufacturing careers. To support its design and CNC machining curriculum, the school purchased 10 seats of Mastercam 2019. With 28 students doubling up to use the software, others must wait to get programming time. The students not only learn CAD/CAM, they gravitate toward it.

“The students who are waiting get impatient for their turns,” said Fox. “I tell them to just work hard, they will get their chance. It’s a nice little carrot to dangle in front of them. They get so excited when they see Mastercam.”

Since most Colerain students have completed SOLIDWORKS® classes before they start the Butler Tech precision machining program, they generally jump right into Mastercam. To introduce high schoolers to CAD/CAM, Fox keeps things simple at first. Students start by drawing boxes and then learn how to set grids and ribbon bars. They study toolpaths to understand how the tools cut and use Mastercam Backplot and Verify utilities to check tool motion. For one of their first assignments, Butler students were charged with designing and machining key chains shaped in the likeness of their school mascot. The students learned quickly, and their instructor picked up a few things along the way.

“I am fluent in Mastercam, but every semester a student will teach me something new,” said Fox. “They’re so computer literate—it’s amazing what the kids can do. Our shop does not have 5-axis machines, but with Mastercam, students can make almost anything. The kids that are working with it right now are amazed by all they can do.”

Not only do students learn the technical aspects of designing and machining, they are applying manufacturing solutions to real-life situations. One thoughtful, talented group of Butler students summoned their creativity, design, and machining skills to improve the life of one of their fellow students. The young woman, who has the use of one arm, worked in a hospital. She could not make up hospital beds because she was unable to put on her required latex gloves.

Butler students brainstormed ways to remedy the situation. They designed and manufactured a pronged part that can be carried in a pocket and snapped onto a linen cart. A latex glove is draped over the part prongs, allowing a hand to be easily inserted into the open glove. Now that latex gloves are no longer an obstacle for the student, she can complete her job tasks, including changing bedsheets. Aptly named the Glove Aid, the product was designed in Mastercam and is currently featured on the YouTube channel where it continues to draw attention.

“We’re getting calls from a lot of people, including people with cerebral palsy, that need a Glove Aid,” said Fox. “So, we’re actually remanufacturing it right now.”

In addition to design and problem-solving skills, students leave Butler Tech with all-around machining skills, including boring, drilling, tapping, grinding, and programming Dynamic milling toolpaths. According to Fox, by the time they graduate, students have mastered measurements, blueprints, math, trigonometry, RPM formulas—just about anything they may encounter in the machining world.

As an instructor in a technical program, Fox’s main goal is to help his students qualify for and find employment. Many local manufacturers offer Butler students apprenticeships and others offer direct employment or co-op positions. Instead of attending Butler Tech classes during their senior years, they co-op and earn $14 per hour, on average.

“The high-tech jobs are what they’re after, and we do our best to position them for that,” said Fox.

The Butler Tech Precision Machining program is adept at preparing high school grads for ongoing success in the manufacturing field, a field that is not limited to machinist careers alone. Many Butler grads go on to attend the University of Cincinnati or Cincinnati State and graduate with engineering degrees. Fox said he tries to show his students the spectrum of available job opportunities.

“Hopefully, they latch onto something, take it to a higher level, and then become productive members of society,” he said.

Every year, the school holds an open house and invites potential employers, usually 30 or more. When they arrive, they meet with juniors and discuss employment opportunities. As long as they are passing class requirements, juniors are available for employment. At Butler’s 2018 open house, every junior was hired.

The shortage of skilled machinists and programmers, coupled with the looming silver tsunami, are fueling the push to attract young workers to the manufacturing sector.

Companies are desperate to get more people in this field, at both the high school and college levels, said Fox.

“I have companies that will write parents letters saying that if their student gets in this precision machining program, they can employ him when he graduates,” he said.

Most of the companies that Butler Tech works with are using Mastercam, so including the CAD/CAM in the course curriculum is a proven resume builder. Many companies that recruit employees from Butler expect their new hires to work with the software as soon as they start their jobs.

“Some companies are having the students write Mastercam programs at their machines, so it’s becoming a big part of the process,” said Fox. “You don’t just have a dedicated programmer anymore, you have everybody writing their own programs.”

With so many new programmers and machinists working with the software, Fox takes comfort knowing that he has the full support of his reseller, FASTech Inc, Findlay, OH. The staff helps with CAD/CAM problem-solving, troubleshooting, machining strategies—virtually any obstacle that Fox and his students may encounter.

“I call FASTech approximately once a month,” said Fox. “If I’m really in a bind, they straighten me out pretty quick. At the level I teach, I’m not getting into 5-axis machining, so I don’t need that much technical support. But, it’s good to know that they are there. They always help me whenever I need it.”

As the manufacturing sector continues to search for new, skilled employees to replace the wave of retirees, Butler Tech will keep preparing its students in CAD/CAM and machining to help fill the labor void.

Tom Shaw

Tom Shaw

Technical Education Post, Online Publisher

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