Metal and plastic machine workers typically do the following:
Metal and plastic machine workers operate equipment that creates the parts for consumer products. In general, these workers are separated into two groups: those who set up machines for operation and those who operate machines during production. However, many workers perform both tasks.
Although many workers both set up and operate machines, some specialize in being either a machine setter or a machine operator and tender.
Machine setters, or setup workers, prepare the machines before production, do test runs, and, if necessary, adjust and make minor repairs to the machinery before and during operation. Computer numerically controlled (CNC) setters upload computer control programs.
After installing the tools into a machine, setup workers often produce the initial batch of goods, inspect the products, and turn over the machine to an operator.
Machine operators and tenders monitor the machinery during production.
After a setter prepares a machine for production, an operator observes the machine and the products it makes. Operators may have to load the machine with materials for production or adjust machine speeds during production. They must periodically inspect the parts that a machine produces to ensure everything works properly, repairing equipment as needed. For example, the parts a machine produces may show defects if the cutting tool inside a machine becomes dull or damaged after extended use. When that happens, it is common for an operator to remove the worn tool and replace it with a new one produced by tool and die makers. Operators may fix minor problems themselves but may have an industrial machinery mechanic fix more serious problems.
Setters, operators, and tenders are usually identified by the type of machine they work with. Job duties generally vary with the size of the manufacturer and the type of machine being operated. Although some workers specialize in one or two types of machines, others are trained to set up or operate a variety of them. Automation often allows machine operators to control multiple machines at the same time.
In addition, 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 range of skills.
The following are examples of types of metal and plastic machine workers:
Computer numerically controlled tool operators operate CNC equipment or robots to perform functions on metal or plastic workpieces.
Computer numerically controlled tool programmers develop computer programs to control the machining or processing of metal or plastic parts by automatic machine tools, equipment, or systems.
Cutting, punching, and press machine setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate machines to saw, cut, shear, notch, bend, or straighten metal or plastic materials.
Drilling and boring machine tool setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate drilling machines to drill, bore, mill, or countersink metal or plastic workpieces.
Extruding and drawing machine setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate machines to extrude (pull out) thermoplastic or metal materials in the form of tubes, rods, hoses, wire, bars, or structural shapes.
Forging machine setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate machines that shape or form metal or plastic into parts.
Foundry mold and coremakers make or form wax or sand cores or molds used in the production of metal castings in foundries.
Grinding, lapping, polishing, and buffing machine tool setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate grinding and related machine tools that remove excess material from surfaces, sharpen edges or corners, or buff or polish metal or plastic workpieces.
Heat-treating equipment setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate heating equipment, such as heat-treating furnaces, flame-hardening machines, induction machines, soaking pits, or vacuum equipment, to temper, harden, anneal, or heat treat metal or plastic objects.
Lathe and turning machine tool setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate lathe and turning machines to turn, bore, thread, or form metal or plastic materials, such as bars, rods, and castings.
Metal-refining furnace operators and tenders operate or tend furnaces, such as gas, oil, coal, electric-arc or electric-induction, and oxygen furnaces. These furnaces may be used to melt and refine metal before casting.
Milling and planing machine setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate milling or planing machines to shape, groove, or profile metal or plastic workpieces.
Model makers set up and operate machines, such as milling and engraving machines, to make working models of metal or plastic objects. They may also use 3D printing technology.
Molding, coremaking, and casting machine setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate metal or plastic molding, casting, or coremaking machines to mold or cast metal or thermoplastic parts or products.
Multiple machine tool setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate two or more types of cutting or forming machine tool or robot.
Patternmakers lay out, machine, fit, and assemble castings and parts to metal or plastic foundry patterns and core molds.
Plating machine setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate plating machines and perform chemical checks for coating metal or plastic products with zinc, copper, nickel, or some other metal to protect or decorate surfaces.
Pourers and casters operate computer- or hand-controlled machines to pour and regulate the flow of molten metal into molds to produce castings or ingots.
Rolling machine setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate machines to roll steel or plastic or to flatten, temper, or reduce the thickness of materials.
Welding, soldering, and brazing machine setters, operators, and tenders (including workers who operate laser cutters or laser-beam machines) set up or operate welding, soldering, or brazing machines or robots that weld, braze, solder, or heat treat metal products, components, or assemblies.
Although metal and plastic machine workers typically need a high school diploma, CNC tool programmers usually need coursework beyond high school. Some community colleges and other schools offer courses and certificate programs in operating metal and plastics machines including CNC programming.
For metal and plastic machine workers, high school classes in computer programming, math, and vocational technology may be useful.
Certification can show competence and can be helpful for advancement. The National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) offers certification in numerous metalworking specializations.