Managing the CAM Workforce Supply Chain

Maybe reframing the conversation in business terms will help solve the manpower problem.


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Every shop or manufacturing business I know of has a CAM manpower problem. Shop owners and managers I meet with every day say they would hire a programmer in a minute if they could only find the right person. It’s not even a question of money. I could rattle off the names of a bunch of shops that would pay $100,000 a year if they could only get another capable person to come in and program their machines. It won’t be long before high-end CAM people—those who are very good at material removal, and capable and conversant with complete manufacturing processes, from design to multi-axis machining to inspection—will be commanding $150,000 a year.

This isn’t just a problem on the shop floor. The shortage of such well-trained and experienced workers affects everyone in the industry, including equipment builders, software developers, tool suppliers, and the distributors who sell and service these essential products. They need skilled and talented workers with CAM expertise, too.

Where is the pipeline that is going to bring these talented men and women to the manufacturing jobs that are waiting for them? There isn’t one. This is a big problem and will become a bigger one until someone does something about it, and that someone is us—those of us who work in manufacturing. Maybe it would help to give this desperately needed CAM manpower pipeline a fancy name so that everyone with a stake in the future of manufacturing will monitor and manage it as 
a critical variable for manufacturing business success. Let’s call it the CAM workforce supply chain. 

Managing this supply chain involves doing a better job of nurturing talent, skills and expertise within manufacturing operations. It also requires understanding the factors outside of the shop that impact manpower availability and then influencing them so that we can better fulfill our manpower requirements. This is in everyone’s best interest, but the place to start is with management. 

Truth About the Consequences
Meaningful change in any organization almost always starts at the top. Management must 1) acknowledge that the changes being advocated for are important; 2) communicate their unwavering intention to implement them; 3) establish quantifiable metrics and insist that they be measured systematically; and 4) reward behaviors, both large and small, that move the organization in the direction of the desired change.

Good corporate managers are very adept at 2, 3 and 4. The bottleneck occurs with No. 1. Management struggles with under-standing the importance of change and their value in being champions for it. There are many reasons why this issue requires their attention, but here are two of the most compelling:

1. Money is being left on the table. What is your current backlog? In my area, many job shops are quoting 12-16 week lead times, even though they are subcontracting a great deal of work to keep pace with orders. All those extra weeks in backlog represent money left on the table that could be captured, if only individuals with requisite skills were available to program equipment to operate more efficiently. Many shops have the equipment, tools and software that would allow them to increase their productivity by 30 percent or more, if they only had the inclination and training to use them more effectively. 

Shops where management insists on this training have gained a tremendous competitive advantage in terms of aggressive pricing and profitability. How logical is it to purchase a million-dollar machine and then skimp on a few thousand dollars’ worth of training that would give the programmers the knowledge to use it for all it is worth? Top management can authorize large capital expenditures for mind-boggling CAM technology, but shop supervisors are too proud or afraid to ask for sufficient funds for essential training. 

2. Corporate survival depends on it. When attending any regional trade show, you may notice that most of the people walking the exhibit floors have gray hair. This is a problem for them and others in the industry because there simply are not enough qualified replacements waiting in the wings. Only manufacturing operations that solve this by learning to manage their CAM workforce supply chain will survive. 

These are just two of many reasons why effective CAM work-force supply chain management must be driven from top down.

Work With What You Have
Shops with one or two very talented programmers are at a disadvantage because these programmers frequently don’t have the time (and sometimes the inclination) to show others the tricks of the trade. This is why many shops are beginning to insist that all of their machine operators also become proficient with their CAM software. 

Some will only use the CAM system to set up and run the equipment. Some will learn how to program simple parts as well as operate their equipment. Others will become very proficient and learn how to program multi-axis mills, lathes and turn-mill equipment. Still others will become cradle-to-grave manufacturing strategists who can take large sums of money off the table by identifying and fixing underperforming processes. Shops that operate in this way create a hierarchy of talent where people are rewarded for helping individuals “below” them and learning from those who have progressed further on this career path. Manufacturing companies that have created career paths like these have much greater success in retaining their progressively more skilled CAM workers. 

Creating a CAM career path where young people can advance steadily has another important advantage in that it enables people to learn skills progressively from the bottom up. The best cradle-to-grave manufacturing process specialists and engineers started out as programmers. Camaraderie ensues when there is a culture that applauds the sharing of knowledge so that everyone has an opportunity to get better at what they do.

These teammates encourage each other to engage in self learning, book learning, online interactive opportunities or simple deconstructing of help files readily available in the equipment and software. Of course, there are some companies, the ones that do mostly two-axis work, that may be reluctant to train their CAM programmers up to levels where there may not be sufficient opportunities to move up. These “over-trained” individuals may be raided by other shops who need them for higher-level CAM activities. However, when talented people are not given an opportunity to learn and advance, the situation creates a morale problem that results in high turnover anyway.

A more enlightened approach would be to provide learning opportunities with the mutual expectation that the participant will stay on with the sponsoring company for a number of years. After the allotted time, the company will assist in finding the CAM programmer a position with a new company if opportunity for advancement is not available where he or she is. This serves to give the two-axis company a good reputation in the industry and the transplanted CAM programmer might one day become one of its best customers.

Take Advantage of Supplier Expertise
Technology suppliers also have a vested interest in helping the industry develop a robust CAM workforce supply chain. Their livelihood depends on it. Here are some ways they can help you get a bigger payback from their products and services:
• Provide consultation selling evaluations to support process development for specific applications.
• Conduct seminars at their facilities and/or your plant to help users understand the most helpful features of the latest product.
• Provide customized training on your equipment and/or operating software.
• Write application-specific and machine-specific postprocessors to standardize and optimize manufacturing processes.
• Write custom CAM programs while training your users how to use them and write their own.
• Collaborate with multiple vendors to provide integrated training covering multi-axis operation of multi-axis equipment, tool selection, posts and CAM programming to support a fast-tracked new equipment commissioning.

Many of these services are free. Others are provided at a cost that can be justified by getting expensive equipment and staff up to speed faster, and making it possible to use the new systems at higher levels of productivity, quality and profitability.

Trusted vendors add depth and expertise to your manufacturing workforce, and if they are not working for free, they are working only on an as-needed basis, typically with a quantifiable short payback for their services. That’s their role in CAM workforce supply chain management. These service providers also become familiar with your manufacturing protocols and procedures, which further enhances their value.

Work With Educational Institutions
In some parts of the country, there are excellent high school, community college and university degree programs intended to bring critical skills to the manufacturing community. Here are a few guidelines for your involvement:

Don’t expect too much. These programs are sometimes working with limited resources and cannot be expected to deliver polished machinists, programmers and engineers. That only comes after a couple years or more of hands-on experience.

Don’t expect too little. There is a great deal these institutions can do to prepare young men and women to be top-flight entry-level performers in your manufacturing operations. Let your expectations be known. Get involved with boards, and contribute your time to talk with and advise teachers and students. If you can make a material contribution, that would be helpful, too.

Get involved with intern programs. This enables you to get to know some of the talented people who are advancing toward careers in manufacturing. Hire the good ones.

Encourage your staff to participate in educational opportunities. Many programs are available through local educational institutions, and if they don’t have exactly what you need, work with them to devise programs that will. 

Reimburse your staff. Pay your staff back for successfully completing units of education.

Encourage your best people. Top employees should get involved in community education programs as advisors or teachers, or by helping to devise special projects or contributing specialized resources. 

Be Proud of What You Do
There are so many ways that we can make ourselves known in our communities and on the national scene. It is encouraging to see television series like “Orange County Choppers” and “The Edge Factor” depicting some of the most rewarding aspects of careers in manufacturing. You might have some ideas that would provide material for these and programs like them. 

There also are other ways your company can become involved. Check out the Wounded Warriors program that helps disabled veterans establish careers in our industry. Every time you show your pride in manufacturing, you are doing your part in getting manufacturing on the public’s radar screen and strengthening the supply chain. Doing your part could be as simple as talking up manufacturing to friends and family, or your children and their friends when the opportunity arises.

Recently I made a visit to the far end of the CAM workforce supply chain: a kindergarten class. I was one of the dads that kids drag in to tell the class about what they do for a living. I explained my job and how interesting and fun it is to work with computers and to program machines to make the products we use every day. As I was talking, I could see some of their eyes light up. Perhaps for the first time, they were hearing about an important and rewarding career path that they might want to follow. 

When it’s on your radar screen, opportunities to build our CAM workforce will present themselves more often than you can imagine.