Machine made in America
An old lathe toils away unsupervised, the tungsten carbide bit cutting through steel to make a shiny new cog.
A flexible nozzle pumps a constant stream of oil over the sensitive parts, cooling and lubricating them. On the floor, cat litter soaks up the random drops of oil. Across the room, computer numerical control machines the size of minivans grunt and whir, their teeth bathed in milky water behind glass. Up toward the skylights, the two halves of the room are divided by a chain-link fence to which years of greasy dust clings.
Down on the shop floor, two dozen high school kids take tours, led by skilled machine operators, and trailed by their teachers.
It's Manufacturing Day, the annual event when the federal government and private industry try to get school kids interested in the broader maker economy. Around Portland, that usually means school buses showing up at microchip plants or laser factories for demonstrations of the future of high-tech manufacturing, and how factories still require humans to program the robots.
But American Machine & Gear is an old-school machine shop. It sits on Industrial Street, one of those quiet roads in Northwest Portland, where everything is either a factory or a brewery. When a lumber mill, steel mill or power plant has a worn-out cog or gear, they will turn to a shop like American to retool the piece. These are not your truck's gearboxes — these are 30,000-pound gearboxes an adult can walk inside.
What does Norman Besand, the superintendent of American Machine and Gear, hope to get out of the school visits?
"I hope to get future employees," Besand told the Business Tribune. "Coming in here exposes them to the shop industry, and we hope that then, maybe, they take an interest — maybe they want to take further schooling and someday come knocking on our door for a job. That's our hope."
Shortage of young blood.
"In this industry, there's not enough kids getting into it. You look at the school register — look at all the other shops like us, or even manufacturing — they're always looking for machinists."
On the manufacturing side, a machinist can train in a year, but they would be operating, not programming the machines.
"Basically, they're putting in a part, hitting the button and maybe doing some editing. And that's it," says Besand.
Older workers need to learn as well.
"Even the guys here who are manual machinists. We try to cross them over on the CNC. They know what the machine should do it; it's a matter of teaching them how to program, which is a little bit different than what they would do."
Karin Stanley teaches post-secondary success at the Open School at Southeast 165th and Stark. It's an alternative school with students from six different school districts.
As she wends her way between the CNC machines, shooting phone videos and shepherding her students, Stanley says, "I make grown-ups." This means she prepares them for college, or more usually, for a career. Helping them to figure out what they want to do and take the next step is most of her job. "We advocate greatness. There's lots of phone calls home, not just if there's a behavior issue, but we also call to say, 'Your kid did something really awesome today.'"
Stanley brought students to this shop two years ago when she worked at another school and loved it. "It turned out I really, really enjoyed being here. I was fascinated by everything they do."
They visit colleges and other businesses — from healthcare to journalism — but she has an affinity for blue-collar labor.
"Students say to me, 'I don't know what I want to do, but I know I want to work with my hands.' And I say 'Great, you're going to love this.'"
She explains to them it's a shop, not a factory. They make custom-made objects, or they fix broken ones, but they don't churn out thousands of identical widgets.
"I think it's good for young people to see what exactly manufacturing can look like, besides that one scene in a movie where there was a factory. My dad and my grandfather were truck drivers, but they had a mechanic shop. Everything they did was with their hands. Most of these students are from low-income families like I was."
I think there's a sense of certain jobs are for other people, and these jobs are for me. Some of it is, is there a sense of belonging? Can someone with my background be there? But also more, it's just exposure. They just haven't seen much, because they're young. So much of what you're exposed to is based on your social class and where you have networks. Most of these students are from low-income families like mine. They want to be things that are in two different categories: things they've seen on TV like a musician or sports star, or things they've seen folks in their family do. They don't know much about the middle. So let's give them more exposure to the middle."
Stanley has to break down the very idea of what a job is, and free it from its social constraints.
A student from the Open School, Clayton Tippetts, 18, saw a couple of CNC machines, a gear cutting machine, and a vertical CNC machine that morning. He has previous work experience: he worked the summer of 2018 in a door building plant in Utah, unloading the lines.
Right now, he's looking for a job at Burger King or Papa Murphy's, but when he graduates on June 2020, he's going to take a year break then study aerospace engineering at PCC.
He hasn't worked on cars or bikes, but he has rebuilt and fixed PCs for people he finds on Craigslist, charging $20 an hour. Ultimately, Tippetts wants to work for Boeing or SpaceX after going to college and starting at a higher level with a master's degree in science.
As for American Machine, he likes it. "It's noisy and dirty, but I'm used to it. I like the environment," he told the Business Tribune.
Judah Sovereign was there with a group from the Clackamas Academy of Industrial Sciences. They were already familiar with many of the tools on display at American Machine and Gear.
"We have mills and stuff at our school where we get to experiment and build stuff. We can do welding. We can do automotive classes." Asked if he would like to work in a place like this, he said, "I'm not sure. I definitely do want to work in something industry-related, and maybe not quite milling. But it's definitely an interest of mine. I would definitely like to work more in the automotive industry, some kind of car building or repair."
Cars are the future
"Everyone needs transportation. We're going to move more towards the computer science and robotics part as technology grows, but there's always going to be those people that want to get their hands dirty, or just want to do things the old-fashioned way. There's always going to be a need for industry-based professions. It's actually pretty sad, sort of dying. But what our school does is focus on preparing kids for industry-based work, because that's what some kids want to do."
He's about to take a class this winter with his uncle, an architect who loves cars. They'll be converting a gas-powered car into an electric car. His uncle rides Harley Davidsons with Sovereign's dad. Together, they will convert a Toyota Miata. Sovereign is also fixing up a VW Jetta with one of his friends.
At the Clackamas Academy of Industrial Sciences, Mike Busse teaches robotics, architecture, engineering, machine shop, wood shop and material science.
He tells them that automation is coming, but, "There's a big need for people who can still do the manual work. And there's a learning curve that if you begin on the manual stuff, you'll actually understand and be able to advance more with the automated machining."
And if they start machining wood or metal on traditional manual lathes, they will have a better understanding of the materials and more chance of one day programming the CNC machine, rather than just operating it.
The school is well-equipped: a full machine shop with lasers and CNC equipment, a fab shop for doing sheet metal and welding, and a full woodshop.
Busse says they can expect, at entry-level, to earn $15 to $18 an hour at age 18. If they work their way up to foreman, it's more like $45 an hour.
Does he recommend manufacturing because it pays well, at the higher-skill levels?
"I honestly tell them, if you go out and do this, you're going to make more money than I do! These kids could go into a job at 18 with no college debt and get a job that's going to pay them a living family wage. I'm fourth generation in this kind of stuff. I mean, it's paid my family's way."
Taking them to a machine shop is career orientation.
"It's all about trying to connect it to something that they're also interested in. Because right now, they're not career-focused. The hard piece is finding a way to connect what we're trying to teach them with what we're trying to help them out with their future."
He doesn't discourage their idealistic hopes.
"I try not to say, 'That might not happen' to anything, because the things that weren't realistic when I was their age, exist,'" he says.
The future is in wires
Alone in a room next to the offices, American Machine and Gear has one of the largest Electrical Discharge Machines (EDM) on the west coast. It's made by Mitsubishi and costs about $250,000. Climb up a ladder and it looks like a tank of black water. A single wire is spooling constantly down into the water and comes out the back of the machine, furled into loops and no longer useful. Somewhere in the dark water is a part being made. The wire carries an electrical charge which cuts metal with high accuracy – close to ten thousandths of an inch. It's slow and they run the machine day and night. It can cut something with a Rockwell hardness of 50, which couldn't be machined by the traditional tools.
And if the wire breaks, the EDM rethreads itself.
American Machine & Gear
Location: 2770 N.W. Industrial St.
Owner: Patrick Duffy
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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