Modern CNC milling machines are technological marvels that can shape a block of metal into a precise component with little human assistance necessary. But they don’t have minds of their own.
That’s where machinists come in, and that’s what high school students at the Production and Manufacturing Institute are quickly learning to become.
The institute is training those young minds through a three-week introductory course in the manufacturing sector that includes tours of plants and introductions to welding and machining, all while designing and producing a manufactured product to be sold.
On Monday and Tuesday, the students learned the basics of manufacturing metal components using these machines by crafting a beverage coaster from a small block of aluminum at Spokane Community College.
SCC machining instructor Sam Tevis created an example program to machine the coaster, which is designed in a lightweight isogrid pattern used in the aerospace industries, such as with the outer panel of a spaceship or drone frame.
“What I’m normally teaching in two years, I’m teaching in 10 minutes for them,” he says, but the students catch on quick.
CNC machines are generally safe for beginners to use, but manually operated lathes and mills are a little above the high schoolers’ pay grades in the time provided, though all SCC machining students become proficient in them during a standard two-year associate’s degree program.
“The whole point is to simulate advanced manufacturing,” Tevis explained, from computer-based design work to the physical machining needed for a single component.
Institute program director Dr. Wade Larson was pleased with the 65-strong cadre of juniors and seniors, who hail from four schools in eastern Washington as far away as Newport.
Larson is the chief human resources officer at Wagstaff Inc., which produces machines and equipment for aluminum processing companies.
“It’s a big change between crafting something and manufacturing it,” he said, and students learn quickly that while a single product may be a challenge, making an entire production line to the same standard requires even more coordination and quality control to ensure consistency.
Institute students Kahden Spring and Charlie Marquardt are upcoming juniors at Newport and Riverside high schools, respectively, and have very different goals for their time at the institute.
Spring is looking forward to Friday’s welding class, though he’s unsure how long-term it would be as a career and foresees that his job will likely be as a lineman. If he wasn’t at the institute, he says he’d either be working a summer job or riding his dirt bike with friends.
Marquardt, who uses they/them pronouns, is less interested in the manufacturing aspects and more on the leadership aspect of this program. As a stage manager and president of multiple clubs during the school year, they naturally fit into a manager role, coordinating their team in manufacturing wooden storage boxes, and appreciate the experience gained to use on other projects. For university, they’re considering library science or sports photography.
The price tag for the program is steep, with meals, materials and transportation all covered for the participants. In addition, each student receives high school credit and a $1,500 stipend at the end of the course. Larson explains that it’s a way to compete against minimum wage, which many of these career-oriented students would be making at a summer job.
The institute has a number of sponsors to support its hefty price tag, primarily manufacturing companies like MacKay Manufacturing, Pearson Packaging Systems and Kaiser Aluminum, as well as career development groups, including Career Connect Washington and the Machinist’s Institute.
Larson has seen the impact that these programs can have and is deeply disappointed in the lack of accessibility for trades job opportunities at a high school level. Decades ago, those could sustain a family.
“If high schoolers can graduate with no debt and an advanced certificate,” he said, “that’s life-changing.”