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Things Machinists Wish Engineers Knew


Things Machinists Wish Engineers Knew

There are certain relationships within manufacturing companies that are fraught with tension. One of those relationships is the one between engineers and machinists. Engineers sit in a clean, air-conditioned office; machine shops can be dirty, oily and strewn with metal and plastic shavings. Engineering positions often require a bachelor’s degree; machinist positions don’t. Engineers are upstream in the product development workflow, so they send their SOLIDWORKS files downstream to the machinists. All this leads to a feeling of superiority in the engineers’ ranks.

This may be an oversimplified stereotype of the two professions—but sometimes it’s accurate.

However, at the best companies you will find a different attitude: that success only comes if everybody works together. It might be another platitude, but it’s one that holds up to real life experience.

If you were to ask machinists what kind of additional training they wish engineers had in order to make the products they design easier to manufacture, less expensive and more reliable, the answers might fall into a pattern:

  1. Wish engineers had spent a year in a machine shop.
  2. Wish engineers had spent a year in QC.
  3. Wish engineers had spent a year assembling products.
  4. Wish engineers had spent a month in purchasing.

So, machinists are wishing that engineers had more experience dealing with their own designs downstream from the engineering department. (Maybe you’ve heard the old saying about eating your own dog food.)

Would it work? If engineers ate their own proverbial dog food, would they (we) make better products?

Engineering is not just about design—it is also about making what you’ve designed. Furthermore, you have to sell what you’ve designed and made, and then you have to make a profit on what you’ve sold, made and designed. Learning to work with people in these other disciplines is the key to making the entire process successful. You can’t do engineering without thinking about the rest of the process, and it takes all parts of a company working together to make the company thrive.

So, as much as engineers like to think that the sun rises and sets on the engineering department, the engineering department is really nothing without the rest of the company. We have to make all the relationships work.

It’s easy to talk about generalities, but in practical terms, what can engineers do in their real day-to-day activities that will help them work specifically with the machinists working on their projects? These points have been written with the engineer-machinist relationship in mind, but they can be applied to working with people from other departments, such as purchasing, assembly and repair.

1. Be Excited and Open to New Ideas

Go into the discussion excited by the idea that you can learn something. Does this require some humility? Maybe so, but what it really requires is that you have an overall attitude of curiosity and a love for learning new stuff. If you think you already know everything, you’re sunk.

2. Try Making Your Designs

Spend some time making parts that you have designed. You might find that you need more or different information on the drawing to really make the part that is needed.

3. Check Out the Machine Shop

Work in a machine shop for a while, and use all of the tools and processes that you will design for, such as bridgeport, lathe, band saw, belt sander, drill press, arbor press, CNC, workholding, programming toolpaths, broaches, hobbing, grinding, tumbling, sand blasting, welding and more. Sometimes the tool shop doesn’t want to buy another $200 tool for just one hole. Do you really need to tap a hole that deep? Does the design really need a broached hole? Welded titanium, or can you assemble from less expensive plate?

4. Standardize

The shop would really love it if engineers could standardize on a few things. Certain hole sizes are easier with an all-in-one combination tool that puts on a counter bore, through hole and edge breaks all in one hit. Yes, it’s more expensive, but you only have one tool to buy, one tool to inventory, one tool to change for that operation and one tool to sharpen. Use as many common threads as possible. Standardize inside radius, fastener types, fastener stacks, tolerances, drawing callouts…. You get the idea.

5. Understand Your Materials

Really understand materials. There are reasons you don’t use aluminum for bushings, just as there are reasons you don’t design for injection molded Teflon. When can galvanic issues become a problem? Why is magnesium not more popular? Are titanium and carbon nanotubes practical materials for designs?

6. Check Out Quality Control

Spend some time in quality control measuring parts against drawings. Some parts that fail quality inspection are still usable. How can you, as a designer, set the manufacturing and quality processes up for success rather than failure? How much are those extra zeroes or tight tolerances actually costing? Is that money well spent?

7. Learn Design for Manufacture (DfM)

Find a design for manufacture (DfM) class at a local community college and understand the factors that drive up the cost of manufacturing processes. Part count, assemble-ability, process cost, process reliability, tolerancing, quantity vs automation, etc.

8. Assess Complexity vs Necessity

Do you really need edge breaks all around? Or fillets on everything (and fillets that add material are different from fillets that remove material – the difference between fillets and rounds). Do you need chamfers on both ends of the hole? Features that create additional setups for the CNC? Secondary operations on plastic or sheet metal parts? Holes that small and that deep? Hardened steel instead of hot rolled? Operations that require additional fixturing or machinery?

9. Understand Value Engineering

Some companies employ what is called Value Engineering, which is essentially a cost review of a design. This can help you keep in mind the most important goals for a project and see your design from another point of view.

10. Use the Process to Your Advantage

Get rid of the idea of “throwing it over the wall.” You should ease your design from one part of the process to another, preparing the people in the other departments for what is coming and allowing them to have some input to make changes before the changes start costing more money.

Typically, a department manager or a CAD Admin would be the person to help coordinate things with other departments, but sometimes you just have to learn things on your own. Walking down to the shop with a drawing in one hand and a cold drink in the other can go a long way to not only improve relations between departments, but also improve your company’s product. The people in the shop can make your work easy, or they can make it difficult.

The most difficult aspect of engineering as part of a team is rarely the actual engineering—it’s usually the interpersonal relationships. None of our formal training prepares us for this but the interpersonal stuff is often the weakest link. Learning to see the entire process from the point of view of people who have to deal with your data after you send it down the line will give you more empathy for the issues that they have to deal with.

In summary, if you want to get better results from your machinist, try these strategies:

  • Make their input part of the process; an additional point of view can help you make more informed decisions.
  • Realize they have special knowledge about part of the process that you don’t have.
  • Get ego out of the way and see what you can learn from the situation.
  • Lastly, the main thing is really professional communication, and that entails taking care of issues before they become problems.

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