Why Every Engineer Should Learn Machining

Engineers and machinists might come from the same company, but they are often on the different sides of the barricades when it comes to cooperation. Understanding and working together is crucial for achieving a common goals, so this article looks into ways to improve the situation.

If you’re an engineer working with machine operators (machinists), you’ve more than likely had this thought:

“Damn it, why can’t the machinists just make what’s on the drawing?”

On the other hand, if you’re a machinist working with engineers, you’ve probably had this thought:

“Damn it, why can’t the engineers just draw something I can actually make?”

If you happen to be an engineer and a machinist, you’ve no doubt been on both sides of the issue, and perhaps occasionally caught in between.

Engineers and machinists are both essential to any manufacturing operation, but they don’t always see eye-to-eye. While the engineers complain that machinists never follow their instructions, the machinists complain that engineers never annotate their drawings properly. As with most interpersonal conflicts, there’s plenty of blame to go around, but solutions are in short supply.

In an effort to improve these vital working relationships, engineering.com surveyed hundreds of engineers and machinists who shared their opinions, experiences and horror stories. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot that each group can learn from the other.

What Engineers Say About Machinists

“[There] was a delay when the Model Maker finally admitted he couldn’t machine a depth I needed. I ended up 3D printing the part. Machinists need to realize 3D printing will replace them in many instances unless they are willing to be collaborative.”

Let’s face it: engineers aren’t exactly famed for their people skills. But no engineer is an island, and if you work in manufacturing, that means collaborations between many different people with many different skill sets is a regular part of the job. When we asked engineers to tell us about their best experiences working with machinists, their answers always came down to communication.

Here’s what a few of the respondents said:

“We worked through the night but in the end we delivered good parts to the customer and I gained a fantastic work partner just by listening and rolling up my sleeves.”
“Having a good working relationship with frequent discussions is key to producing great parts every time.”
“When they do communicate well, it’s always with the intent to better understand my needs and then offer helpful, creative insights to improve the design.”
Conversely, although it wasn’t the only issue, poor communication was certainly the most frequently cited—one in three engineers said that a lack of communication is their most common complaint with machinists.

Looking at these results, one can’t help but wonder how often ‘Failure to conform to drawing specs’, the second most common complaint, was actually the result of the first. Of course, every relationship is a two-way street, and there are great insights to be gained from seeing things from the perspective of the other side.

What Machinists Say About Engineers

“Most engineers have this complex and it’s rare to find a ‘good one.’ Fresh out of school with zero work experience trying to tell us that X can be machined and mad at machinists when we can’t. They make it seem that we are the incompetent ones.”
We asked machinists to tell us about their best and worst experiences working with engineers. The quote above represents a common theme among the responses: machinists believe that engineers don’t respect their expertise. Another machinist cited, “Being yelled at that I can’t make the impossible part with ease and with the lack of information they give you. For instance, 90 corner down in a deep pocket when it could have just been cleared on the mating piece.”

Interestingly, ‘Lack of communication was much less frequently cited by machinists as an issue.

However, these results once again suggest that the top two complaints—‘Incomplete drawings/annotations’ and ‘Impossible or unfeasible features’—could potentially be resolved or avoided by improving the communication between engineers and machinists.

Here are a few more examples:

“Designer changes designs just to change them. No rhyme or reason. No benefit for the change. I ask why, he responds, ‘That’s the way it is.’”
“An ME had a program that wasn’t running right. Took 2 days to actually get it right since they wouldn’t listen to what the real problem [was] and wanted to fix everything else.”

“When I received a drawing with chained dimensions adding up to a length longer than the dimensioned overall length and a complete lack of datum surfaces, I asked for it to be reviewed. The reply was with contempt, ‘You’re such a nuisance. What’s your problem? Just do your job!’ It took three attempts at getting clarification before management stepped in.”

The point here is not to suggest that one side bears more responsibility for this issue than the other. It takes two to communicate, and although there are occasionally cases where a single party is clearly and solely at fault, the situation is rarely so simple. The stakes, however, are quite clear.

Improving Collaboration Between Engineers and Machinists

“Being able to speak jargon in both worlds and demonstrate hands-on has helped each group better understand where they can add value without developing animosity. My engineers are getting dirty and my machinists are helping out with project planning.”
Engineers and machinists need to be able to collaborate effectively in order to do their jobs, and that collaboration requires communication above all else. Both sides appear to recognize these issues, as indicated when we asked engineers and machinists, “What one thing could a machinist/engineer do to make your job easier?”

Here are the results:

Note that in both cases, the top answer is essentially the same: 45 percent of engineers said constructive criticism from machinists would make their jobs easier, and 43 percent of machinists said that engineers asking for feedback during design review would make their jobs easier. So, if most of us are on the same page, why is there still this apparent tension?

The most plausible is answer is a knowledge gap.

In the next chapter, we will look closely into possibilities to train, to learn the skills and to work together more closely.

IMA Information:

  • The article lists knowledge difference as the main problem of understanding between engineers and operators. However, all the employees of a production company should broaden and improve their knowledge, which is essential to a manufacturer that looks onto keeping his position on the market.  Italian Machinery Association can offer manufacturers a proper machine operation training tailored to their needs.
  • If you are looking for other engineering materials, please read:

Engineers and operators: why not both?

The critical path to manufacturing efficiency

What is more important — cutting machine utilization or process throughput?

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