Updated: Sep 5, 2018
This is an interesting topic, one with a varying degree of answers depending on who you ask or how you even define what it is to be a machinist. To answer from my point of view, how does it feel to be the last generation of machinist? I honestly do not look at myself as a machinist. My Father was a tool-maker, HE was a machinist. Machinists take a bar or plate material and make something out of it with or without a blueprint to replace a broken part, improve a part, produce a fixture to better hold a part, etc. Are they a dying breed? The answer is yes... for now. For the past decade, machinist, machine operators, and engineers have been the hardest jobs to fill according to a study by Manpower Inc. The problem with this is multifaceted. As a society we no longer value this type of work like we once did. There is a much higher perceived value placed on a college education as compared to a trade school or technical college education, despite the fact that taking average wages and cost of education into consideration, a college education will only net an additional $6000 income over a trade school graduate over 30 years of working.
So what does the future look like for machinists in this country? In my opinion... good! As the country is reshoring and bringing manufacturing back as a result of increased wages and shipping costs from Chinese suppliers, as well as new policies and incentive programs to encourage domestic manufacturing, I believe there will be a growing need for a new generation of machinist in this country. Just as I have outlined changes in the custom 1911 industry in my prior blogs, these changes are occurring in other industries as well. The future of machinists will not be the crank turning dial reading machinist of yesterday, or the button pushing CNC operators of today, but rather small start-ups that would rather design, prototype, and manufacture in-house, or domestic manufacturing adopting lean manufacturing processes and reaping the benefit of efficiency and intelligent processes improvements, scenarios where the machinist is the product AND process engineer; future machinists will be much more technologically driven.
So where do I fit in the mix? My goal was to build some of the best 1911s on the market. To do so I needed to machine parts. Since my goal was to build the best, not simply employ the novelty of hand fabrication, I found myself machining more and hand-fitting less. The fact of the matter is that a man cannot file with the accuracy of a surface grinder, milling machine, or lathe, especially in a commercial setting where profit is an operational goal. Just as my Father always taught me to do, I wanted to use the best tools for each job. I started this business learning on a Smithy lathe and mill combination. This machine was dreadful! It taught me the importance of speeds/feeds and proper work holding, as it was not forgiving in any way. I went from that to a Taiwan made milling machine which was much better but still had limitations. I bought two Bridgeport milling machines and quickly realized the importance of a quality machine. My gears started turning as my machining techniques became more refined and I immediately started to look for ways to improve process efficiency. This is when I decided to add automation to my process. There are things you can do on a CNC machine that you simply cannot do on a manual machine without extremely complicated jigs or fixtures. Interpolated cuts, efficiency, consistency, accuracy were some of the things I wanted to gain through CNC machining. Despite what some people think, when custom machining is involved, CNC is not a button pushing activity. You have to model what you want to cut in CAD, create tool paths in CAM to achieve what you want to produce, and then create a fixture to hold the work in a manner that will work with your available machine and tooling. I explored machining because I am a perfectionist, I want to built the best 1911 I can with the best tools I can afford. Am I part of the last generation of true machinists? No, my Dad was a machinist; just as I am not considered a Smith by some of the top 1911 builders of the past couple decades, but I do fit the next generation of both machinist and smith as I continue learning to develop and improve my processes to achieve my goal of producing some of the best 1911s on the market.