Consider the parts of a toaster, such as the metal or plastic housing or the lever that lowers the toast. These parts, and many other metal and plastic products, are produced by machines that are controlled by machine setters, operators, and tenders—metal and plastic. In fact, machine operators in the metalworking and plastics industries play a major role in producing most of the consumer products on which we rely daily.
In general, these workers can be separated into two groups—those who set up machines for operation and those who operate the machines during production. Machine setters, or setup workers, prepare the machines prior to production, perform initial test runs producing a part, and may adjust and make minor repairs to the machinery during its operation. Machine operators and tenders primarily monitor the machinery during its operation; sometimes they load or unload the machine or make minor adjustments to the controls. Many workers both set up and operate equipment.
Setup workers prepare machines for production runs. Most machines can make a variety of products, and these different items are made by using different inputs or tooling. For instance, a single machine may use different sized tools to produce both large and small wheels for cars. The tools inside the machine must be changed and maintained by setup workers. On some machines, tools may become dull after extended use and must be sharpened. It is common for a setter to remove the tool, use a grinder or file to sharpen the tool, and place the tool back in the machine. New tools are produced by tool and die makers. After installing the tools into a machine, setup workers often produce the initial batch of goods, inspect the products, and turn the machine over to an operator.
Machine operators and tenders are responsible for running machines in manufacturing plants. After a setter prepares a machine for production, an operator observes the machine and the objects it produces. Operators may have to load the machine with materials for production or adjust machine speeds during production. Operators must periodically inspect the parts a machine produces by comparing the parts to blueprint using rulers, micrometers, and other specialized measuring devices. If the products do not meet design parameters, the machine is shut down; if it is a common, minor error the operator may fix the machine, but if it is more serious an industrial machinery mechanic is called to make a repair. Some machines don’t require constant input or attention, so the operator may oversee multiple machines at a given time. In many cases, operators must document production numbers in a notebook or computer database at the end of every hour or shift.
Setters, operators, and tenders usually are identified by the type of machine with which they work. Some examples of specific titles are drilling-machine and boring-machine setup workers, milling-machine and planing-machine tenders, and lathe-machine and turning-machine tool operators. Job duties usually vary with the size of the firm and the type of machine being operated. Although some workers specialize in one or two types of machinery, many are trained to set up or operate a variety of machines. Increasing automation allows machine setters to operate multiple machines simultaneously. In addition, newer production techniques, such as team-oriented “lean” manufacturing, require machine operators to rotate between different machines. Rotating assignments results in more varied work, but also requires workers to have a wider range of skills.
Most machine setters, operators, and tenders work in areas that are clean, well-lit, and well-ventilated. Nevertheless, stamina is required, because machine operators and setters are on their feet much of the day and may do moderately heavy lifting. Also, these workers operate powerful, high-speed machines that can be dangerous if strict safety rules are not observed. Most operators wear protective equipment, such as safety glasses, earplugs, and steel-toed boots, to protect against flying particles of metal or plastic, noise from the machines, and heavy objects that could be dropped. Many modern machines are enclosed, minimizing the exposure of workers to noise, dust, and lubricants used during machining. Other required safety equipment varies by work setting and machine. For example, those in the plastics industry who work near materials that emit dangerous fumes or dust must wear respirators. Overtime is common during periods of increased production for most machine setters, operators, and tenders—metal and plastic, but they usually work a 40-hour week. Because many metalworking and plastics working shops operate more than one shift daily, some operators work nights and weekends.
Education & Training Required
Employers generally prefer workers who have a high school diploma or equivalent for jobs as machine setters, operators, and tenders. Those interested in this occupation can improve their employment opportunities by completing high school courses in shop and blueprint reading and by gaining a working knowledge of the properties of metals and plastics. A solid math background, including courses in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and basic statistics, also is useful, along with experience working with computers.
Machine operator trainees begin by observing and assisting experienced workers, sometimes in formal training programs or apprenticeships. Under supervision, they may start by supplying materials, starting and stopping the machine, or removing finished products from it. Then they advance to the more difficult tasks performed by operators, such as adjusting feed speeds, changing cutting tools, or inspecting a finished product for defects. Eventually, some develop the skills and experience to set up machines and assist newer operators.
The complexity of the equipment largely determines the time required to become an operator. Most operators learn the basic machine operations and functions in a few weeks, but a year or more may be needed to become skilled operators or to advance to the more highly skilled job of setter. Although many operators learn on the job, some community colleges and other educational institutions offer courses and certifications in operating metal and plastics machines. In addition to providing on-the-job training, some employers send promising machine operators to classes. Other employers prefer to hire workers who have completed, or currently are enrolled in, a training program.
Setters or technicians often plan the sequence of work, make the first production run, and determine which adjustments need to be made. As a result, these workers need a thorough knowledge of the machinery and of the products being manufactured. Strong analytical abilities are particularly important for this job. Some companies have formal training programs for operators and setters, which often combine classroom instruction with on-the-job training.
Other Skills Required
As the machinery in manufacturing plants becomes more complex and with changes to shop-floor organization that require more teamwork among employees, employers increasingly look for persons with good communication and interpersonal skills. Mechanical aptitude, manual dexterity, and experience working with machinery also are helpful.
How to Advance
Job opportunities and advancement can be enhanced by becoming certified in a particular machine skill. There are many trade groups that offer certification for machine operators and setup workers, and certifications vary greatly depending upon the skill level involved. Certifications may allow operators and setters to switch jobs more easily because they can prove their skills to a potential employer.
Advancement usually takes the form of higher pay and a wider range of responsibilities. With experience and expertise, workers can become trainees for more highly skilled positions; for instance, it is common for machine operators to move into setup or machinery maintenance positions. Setup workers may also move into maintenance, machinist, or tool and die maker roles. Skilled workers with good communication and analytical skills can move into supervisory positions.
Employment is expected to decline rapidly. Those who can operate multiple machines will have the best opportunities for advancement and for gaining jobs with more long-term potential.
Wages for machine operators can vary by size of the company, union status, industry, and skill level and experience of the operator. Also, temporary employees, who are being hired in greater numbers, usually get paid less than permanently employed workers.