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Filling the Micro Gap


Manufacturers seek ‘micro-minded’ workers

By Larry Adams, Senior Editor

The U.S. media clamor about the growing importance of manufacturing and the need for more engineers while bemoaning the country’s skills gap in math and science. President Obama calls for training 10,000 more engineers each year and establishes research centers to develop new manufacturing methods. If theres a lack of engineers and a skills gap in macro manufacturing, surely there must be a skills gap in micro manufacturing. That conclusion seems to be accurate, according to several manufacturers and academics interviewed by MICRO manufacturing.

There is definitely a skills gap in micro manufacturing, said Tom Medvic, a corporate recruiter specializing in finding engineers and machinists with micro manufacturing skills. Those few with all the skills can jump from company to company and get bigger salaries.

It is a major challenge to find the right people for micro assignments, said Nicole Petta, division general manager of Schafer Corp.s Livermore (Calif.) laboratory. The precision manufacturer, with headquarters in Arlington, Va., supplies tight-tolerance products to national laboratories, universities and other facilities. It is almost impossible for us to find the engineerswe need, with the micro experience we want, without having to train them.

Michael Fitzgerald, owner of Acero Precision, a Newtown Square, Pa., machine shop, said there is no question that the lack of skilled workers is hurting U.S. businesses. I am looking to fill a lot of jobs, including engineers and machinists, with salaries between $50,000 and $100,000, and I can’t find workers with the appropriate skill levels. As a result, machines sit idle and cash flow slows.

What’s needed?

The skills that engineers need to design, engineer and manufacture micro parts can be vast, ranging from basic shop-floor skills to the physics of gravitational forces to plotting mathematical models. Also, skills that apply to macro part production including fixturing, design, inspection, machine set up, assembly and programming have unique requirements when applied to micro manufacturing. And it appears these skills are not being taught to enough students to satisfy the demand for skilled labor.

While some U.S. engineering schools are incorporating micro manufacturing training into their curriculum, the process has been slow. Most engineering students take manufacturing courses as part of their degree program, but it is rare that they get a great deal of exposure to micro manufacturing, said Burak Ozdoganlar, professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, one of the schools that offers micro manufacturing courses.

For the most part, these skills are learned on the job.

Schafer’s Petta said that the company gets buried in resume’s when it has an opening. We do a range of challenging projects that changes all the time, and that seems to appeal and excite scientists and engineers, she said.

While these applicants are likely smart, capable people, odds are they do not have the requisite skills. Unless the applicants come from within the industry, it is rare that Petta finds the person with the right skills to immediately do the job.

At Schafer, the only thing rarer than finding that right skills person is finding that person coming right out of college. Only one graduating engineer has joined Schafer,s staff after being trained in micro manufacturing at the collegiate level. He is a graduate of North Carolina State University and Carnegie Mellon University, both of which offer a micro- and nano-engineering curriculum.

While many companies offer in-house training, Schafer takes it to a new level. It is not uncommon for Schafer engineers to go through a year of training prior to getting the opportunity to oversee the production of a new part, project or process. During that time, they learn the company’s processes and available technology, working with veteran employees and often undergoing training hosted by suppliers.

Currently, the company is looking for a precision engineer for micro scale manufacturing to work in its Livermore laboratory, where it researches, develops and fabricates targets with tight dimensional tolerances for use in laser experiments by Department of Energy national laboratories, universities and other institutions, Petta said.

The company is not looking for just any recruit. The ideal candidate will have experience in ultra precision machining and 5-axis milling. (The company uses Precitech lathes and Microlution multi- axis milling machines.) Experience in part design, machine programming, fabrication, assembly and metrology are musts.

But that’s not all. The successful candidate must also lead Schafer’s R&D efforts involving experiments with micro- to nano-scale fabrication of 3D polymer structures using two-photon polymerization and 3D micro stereo lithography.

These are just some of the technical skills the company needs; they do not include the management responsibilities typically attached to the job.

While quantifiable talents and experience are important, they may not

even be the most important attributes needed for the job. The person must have creativity, Petta said. You have to be able to think out of the box and come up with problem-solving techniques to address the challenges we routinely face.

For example, the company is working on a 20.m part with flatness of 1 milliradian. Consider that the part is diamond-turned on both sides, so it has to be flipped on the lathe. Just holding the part so that you can meet the parallelism spec is very difficult, she said.

Then, the question is how do you characterize the part feature because there is no commercial tool out there that can do the job, she continued. Usually, you would put the part on a known surface and characterize the top of the part and infer that the back of the part is flat, but that is not always true when you are working at this scale. It would introduce too many errors and might damage the part.

The outside-of-the-box solution? A dual confocal measuring microscope designed and built in-house by Schafer engineers that simultaneously measures both sides of the part. Measurements will require accuracies of 0.01.m to meet Schafer’s specifications, she said.

Limiting factor

While not every company requires so much of its workers, that doesn’t mean staffing is any easier for other micro-manufacturers. Acero Precision, for example, is struggling to find workers, said Fitzgerald.

After averaging 13 percent growth annually for the past 20 years, the company has gone from operating twoSwiss-style machines in a rented warehouse and using cardboard boxes for filing cabinets to operating 23 Star Swiss- style lathes, 10 Mazak CNC machines and maintaining a Class 10,000 cleanroom on site. Soon, it will be moving into an 80,000-sq.-ft. building to manufacture complex, tight-tolerance parts for medical implants.

The sky appears to be the limit, or at least it could be. Acero Precision has good customers and enough manufacturing capacity, said Fitzgerald. Enough people to run its CNC machines? That’s a different story.

The company’s growth is really limited to the people we can recruit, said Fitzgerald. We are leaving a lot on the table because we can’t run our machines at night [due to staffing shortages].

Joanne Fitzgerald, the company’s recruiting manager, co-owner andMichael’s wife, said she is looking to hire 30 to 40 workers, including skilled CNC machinists and programmers. One of Acero’s current openings is for a manufacturing engineer/supervisor. The successful candidate must have experience setting up and operating CNC machines, and in addition to top-notch machining skills, must be able to interpret blueprints to create complex, tight-tolerance parts, develop part programs and

Micro manufacturing skills: Not just a U.S issue

The need To develop engineers and workers for micro manufacturing careers is a global issue, not just one for the U.S. For more than a decade, the Institute for Micro Process Engineering (IMVT), an institute within the Karlsruhe Research Center in Eggenstein-Leopoldshafen, Germany, has offered educational opportunities and R&D for microstructured devices. Founded in July 2001, IMVT has 80 sq. m of workshop space and laboratories.

IMVT’s focus on micro process engineering stretches back to research it did for the Karlsruhe Institute on nozzle technology to improve material flow for the enrichment of fissile uranium from isotope mixtures.

IMVT defines micro process engineering as the science of conductive chemical or physical processes in confined channels with dimensions below 1mm. Some of the process engineering operations it researches include heat transfer, mixing, phase conversions, chemical and biochemical conversions, as well as substance separations in micro structured devices.

Areas of research also include reaction technology, which covers substance conversions in micro structured reactors. Micro fluidics, the flow of fluids through microstructures, is an overlapping area of micro process engineering study. The study of micro fluidic systems for lab-on-a-chip applications may also include pumps, valves, sensors and micro devices for more complex technical operations.

An international team of 64 researchers and instructors focus on the construction and fabrication of micro structured devices, on fundamental studies of transport processes and chemical reactions in microstructures and on the use of prototypes in thermal and chemical processes.

Another school developing micro manufacturing programs is DTU Nanotech, the technical university of Denmark, a micro- and nano-technology research institute. Research is broken into four strategic areas: biomedical and life sciences (bio materials, nano medicine and tissue and cellular engineering); energy, environment and security (solar cells, water quality monitoring and explosives detection); lab-on-a-chip (pumps, sensors, bonding and surface modification); and materials and fabrication.

Last summer, the school hosted a 2-week course for doctoral candidates that it called Micro Mechanical Systems Design and Manufacturing 2013. The event was designed to reach college- level engineering teachers, practicing engineers and scientists.

A similar program was conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. Host of the program, V. K. Jain, of the department of mechanical engineering, said that 27 teachers, 25 doctoral students and four researchers attended. Jain said that industries in the region were also having a difficult time finding engineers and scientists with the appropriate skill sets to work in micro manufacturing.

Filling the Micro Gap continued

manufacturing processes, and lead teams of technicians, machinists and assistants.

The company has recruited apprentices at local high schools, community colleges and universities, but is still struggling to find skilled talent despite offering incentives such as relocation expenses, signing bonuses, and in-house training.

The A-talent people in the U.S. just aren’t interested in manufacturing, Michael Fitzgerald said.

As a result, Acero has extended its job search. It currently employs a CNC machinist from Canada. It paid to relocate the worker and is sponsoring his H-1B work visa.

While the company employs numerous engineers, one problem is that many have only been trained to design a part; they do not have the machining skills to produce it. This shows in their paychecks. Engineers designing the parts make up to$80,000, while engineers that machine the part make up to $100,000.

If we were looking for 50 mechanical engineers, we could find 50 of them, Michael Fitzgerald said. It is being able to make something that matters most.

Education opportunities

While schools that teach micro-machining courses as part of their curriculums are few and far between, one could argue that the number of institutions offering at least some micro courses is greater than ever.

This is a far cry from 15 years ago, when scholars from the University ofIllinois, Northwestern University, University of Michigan, North Carolina State University and others got together to develop workshops and seminars on the topic, said Shiv Kapoor, a professor at the University of Illinois, Champaign- Urbana, and one of the earliest proponents of educating students about micro manufacturing. For the past 5 years, Kapoor has taught a micro machining course as a combined undergraduate and graduate course.

The original group of academics was a little naive, Kapoor said, thinking that because they had so much experience in machining and machine tools that micro- machining could just be scaled down from macro principles.

As we started learning, we realized that the physics was different and the mechanics were different, he said.

Kapoor added that as he and his fellow academicians continued researching micro technology, three areas of study were identified as being very important. Number one is material sciences. The second is physics and the mechanics, and the third is automation.

Material science is something rarely taught to manufacturing students, but it should be, according to Kapoor. For example, he is working on a surgical-scalpel project that requires a sharpness radius of between 40nm and 80nm. Stainless steel can’t be used, as the material’s grains would be bigger than the edge radius specifications.

So we had to think of new materials, he said. We started to look at amorphous materials without grains, but they have not been tested as much and we don’t have a machinability database for them. We don’t know how to machine that product or form that product.

In another research example, Kapoor said students explored the use of cutting fluids. We are used to using cutting fluids, but now that we are going to the micro scale there are many questions. How do you provide that coolant and lubrication? Do you really need it? Can we get by with dry machining? Can we get the tolerances we want with dry machining?

Students need to build foundational skills to work in micro- manufacturing, said Kapoor.

Johnson Samuel, an assistant professor at Rensselaer PolytechnicInstitute who studied with Kapoor, agreed. He added that it is important to begin teaching these skills earlier, at the undergraduate level.

Until recently, micro- manufacturing was not taught at this level. However, this year, Samuel concluded a pilot program in which students went through three different micro manufacturing modules: micro milling, additive manufacturing and electro spinning of nano fibers. Each module was designed to not just give hands- on training to the student, but also to teach micro principles.

In the milling section, students use a hybrid milling/EDMing machine from Mikro tools. In addition to learning how to operate the machine, the students inspect tooling, measure tool edge radii and perform micro milling experiments using various materials. When they did that, Samuel said, they learned about cutting forces, feeds and speeds, and the difference between the cutting mechanics in macro machining vs. micro machining.

Samuel hopes to expand this program to give his undergraduate engineering students more instruction in both product design and machining.

That’s something that should please skills-hungry manufacturers such as Acero Precision as it gets ready to open the doors of its new factory. As Joanne Fitzgerald said of the new facility, ‘We are going to build it and hope the workers will come.

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