Metal and plastic machine workers set up and operate machines that cut, shape, and form metal and plastic materials or pieces.

Duties

Metal and plastic machine workers typically do the following:

  • Set up machines according to blueprints
  • Monitor machines for unusual sound or vibration
  • Insert material into machines, manually or with a hoist
  • Operate metal or plastic molding, casting, or coremaking machines
  • Adjust machine settings for temperature, speed and feed rates, and cycle times
  • Remove finished products and smooth rough edges and imperfections
  • Test and compare finished workpieces to specifications
  • Remove and replace dull cutting tools
  • Document production numbers in a computer database

Consumer products are made with many metal and plastic parts. These parts are produced by machines that are operated by metal and plastic machine workers. In general, these workers are separated into two groups: those who set up machines for operation and those who operate machines during production.

Although many workers both set up and operate machines, some specialize in one of the following job types:

Machine setters, or setup workers, prepare the machines before production, perform test runs, and, if necessary, adjust and make minor repairs to the machinery before and during operation.

If, for example, the cutting tool inside a machine becomes dull after extended use, it is common for a setter to remove the tool, use a grinder or file to sharpen it, and reinstall it into 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 monitor the machinery during operation.

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 the machine’s speeds during production. They must periodically inspect the parts a machine produces. If they detect a minor problem, operators may fix it themselves. If the repair is more serious, they may have an industrial machinery mechanic fix it.

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 machinery, many are trained to set up or operate a variety of machines. Increasing automation allows machine operators to control multiple machines at the same time.

In addition, new 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 wide range of skills.

The following are examples of types of metal and plastic machine workers:

Computer-controlled machine tool operators operate computer-controlled machines or robots to perform functions on metal or plastic workpieces.

Computer numerically controlled machine tool programmers develop computer programs to control the machining or processing of metal or plastic parts by automatic machine tools, equipment, or systems.

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 parts.

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.

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.

Grinding, lapping, polishing, and buffing machine tool setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate grinding and related tools that remove excess material from surfaces, sharpen edges or corners, or buff or polish metal or plastic workpieces.

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 wire or rod.

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.

Metal-refining furnace operators and tenders operate or tend furnaces, such as gas, oil, coal, electric-arc or electric induction, open-hearth or oxygen furnaces to melt and refine metal before casting or to produce specified types of steel.

Pourers and casters operate hand-controlled mechanisms to pour and regulate the flow of molten metal into molds to produce castings or ingots.

Model makers set up and operate machines, such as milling and engraving machines to make working models of metal or plastic objects.

Patternmakers lay out, machine, fit, and assemble castings and parts to metal or plastic foundry patterns and core molds.

Foundry mold and coremakers make or form wax or sand cores or molds used in the production of metal castings in foundries.

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 more than one type of cutting or forming machine tool or robot.

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.

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.

Plating and coating machine setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate plating or coating machines to coat metal or plastic products with zinc, copper, nickel, or some other metal to protect or decorate surfaces (includes electrolytic processes).

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Work Environment

Metal and plastic machine workers held about 1 million jobs in 2012. Nearly all worked in manufacturing industries.

Employment in the detailed occupations that make up this group was distributed as follows:

Cutting, punching, and press machine setters,
operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
184,700
Computer-controlled machine tool operators, metal and plastic 140,300
Molding, coremaking, and casting machine setters, operators,
and tenders, metal and plastic
125,000
Multiple machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 85,900
Extruding and drawing machine setters, operators, and tenders,
metal and plastic
74,900
Grinding, lapping, polishing, and buffing machine tool setters,
operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
71,500
Welding, soldering, and brazing machine setters, operators, and tenders 53,500
Lathe and turning machine tool setters, operators, and tenders,
metal and plastic
38,600
Rolling machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 36,400
Plating and coating machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 35,000
Computer numerically controlled machine tool programmers,
metal and plastic
24,300
Milling and planing machine setters, operators, and tenders,
metal and plastic
23,100
Forging machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 22,600
Heat treating equipment setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 22,000
Drilling and boring machine tool setters, operators, and tenders,
metal and plastic
20,900
Metal-refining furnace operators and tenders 20,800
Foundry mold and coremakers 12,400
Pourers and casters, metal 10,700
Model makers, metal and plastic 6,100
Patternmakers, metal and plastic 4,400

Metal and plastic machine workers are employed mostly in factories.  

These workers often operate powerful, high-speed machines that can be dangerous, so they must observe safety rules. Operators usually wear protective equipment, such as safety glasses, to protect them from flying particles of metal or plastic, earplugs to guard against noise from the machines, and steel-toed boots, to shield their feet from heavy objects that are dropped.

Other required safety equipment varies by work setting and machine. For example, respirators are common for those in the plastics industry who work near materials that emit dangerous fumes or dust.

Work Schedules

Most metal and plastic machine workers are employed full time and work during regular business hours. Overtime is common, and because many manufacturers run their machinery for many hours a day, evening and weekend work also is common.

Education and Training

A few months of on-the-job training is enough for most workers to learn basic machine operations, but 1 year or more is required to become highly skilled. Computer-controlled machine workers may need more training. Although not always required, employers prefer to hire workers who have a high school diploma.

Education

For jobs as machine setters, operators, and tenders, employers generally prefer workers who have a high school diploma. Those interested in this occupation can improve their employment opportunities by completing high school courses in computer programming, 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 is useful.

Some community colleges and other schools offer courses and certificate programs in operating metal and plastics machines.

Training

Machine operator trainees usually begin by watching and helping experienced workers on the job. Under supervision, they may start by supplying materials, starting and stopping the machines, or removing finished products from it. Then they advance to more difficult tasks that operators perform, 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 help newer operators.

The complexity of the equipment usually determines the time required to become an operator. Some operators and tenders learn basic machine operations and functions in a few weeks; but other workers, such as computer-controlled machine tool operators, may need a year or more to become skilled or to advance to the more highly skilled job of setter.

In addition to providing on-the-job training, employers may pay for some machine operators to attend classes. Other employers prefer to hire workers who have completed or are enrolled in a training program.

As the manufacturing process continues to advance with computerized machinery, knowledge of computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), and computer numerically-controlled (CNC) machines can be helpful.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Although certification is not required, a growing number of employers prefer that applicants become certified. Certification can show competence and professionalism and can be helpful for advancement. The National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) has developed skills standards in 24 operational areas.

Advancement

Advancement usually includes higher pay and more responsibilities. With experience and expertise, workers can become trainees for more highly skilled positions. It is common for machine operators to move into setup or machinery maintenance positions. Setup workers may become industrial machinery mechanics and maintenance workers, machinists, or tool and die makers.

Skilled workers with good communication and analytical skills may move into supervisory positions.

Personality and Interests

Metal and plastic machine workers typically have an interest in the Building, Thinking and Organizing interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Thinking interest area indicates a focus on researching, investigating, and increasing the understanding of natural laws. The Organizing interest area indicates a focus on working with information and processes to keep things arranged in orderly systems.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Thinking or Organizing interest which might fit with a career as a metal and plastic machine worker, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Metal and plastic machine workers should also possess the following specific qualities:

Computer skills. Employers who have modern technology systems require that metal and plastic machine workers be able to use programmable devices, computers, and robots on the factory floor.

Dexterity. Precise hand movements are necessary in order to produce workpieces that meet exact specifications. Those who work in metal and plastic machined goods manufacturing must have good manual dexterity in order to make the necessary shapes, cuts, and edges that designs require.

Mechanical skills. Although modern technology has brought a lot of computer-based systems to this occupation, workers still set up and operate machinery. They must be comfortable working with machines and have a good understanding of how the machines and all their parts work.

Physical stamina. Metal and plastic machine workers must be able to stand for long periods and perform repetitive work.

Physical strength. Although most material handling is done using automated systems, some metal and plastic machine workers must be strong enough to guide and load heavy and bulky parts and materials into machines.

Pay

The median hourly wage for metal and plastic machine workers was $15.84 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $10.09 per hour, and the top 10 percent earned more than $24.17 per hour.

Wages vary by the size of the company, union status, industry, skill level, and experience of the operator.

In May 2012, the median hourly wages for metal and plastic machine workers were as follows:

  • $22.08 for computer numerically controlled machine tool programmers, metal and plastic
  • $22.04 for model makers, metal and plastic
  • $20.40 for patternmakers, metal and plastic
  • $18.70 for metal-refining furnace operators and tenders
  • $17.98 for rolling machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $17.57 for lathe and turning machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $17.22 for milling and planing machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $17.10 for computer-controlled machine tool operators, metal and plastic
  • $16.69 for welding, soldering, and brazing machine setters, operators, and tenders
  • $16.37 for forging machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $16.37 for pourers and casters, metal
  • $16.35 for heat treating equipment setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $16.33 for multiple machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $16.32 for drilling and boring machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $15.54 for extruding and drawing machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $15.20 for grinding, lapping, polishing, and buffing machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $14.68 for foundry mold and coremakers
  • $14.29 for plating and coating machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $14.27 for cutting, punching, and press machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $13.77 for molding, coremaking, and casting machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

Most metal and plastic machine workers are employed full time and work during regular business hours. Overtime is common, and because many manufacturers run their machinery for many hours a day, evening and weekend work also is common.

Job Outlook

Employment of metal and plastic machine workers is projected to decline 6 percent from 2012 to 2022. Employment declines stem from advances in technology, foreign competition, and changing demand for the goods these workers produce.

One of the most important factors influencing employment growth in these occupations is the use of labor-saving machinery. Many firms are adopting new technologies, such as computer numerically-controlled (CNC) machine tools and robots, to improve quality and lower production costs. The switch to CNC machinery requires computer programmers instead of machine setters, operators, and tenders. Therefore, demand for lower skilled manual machine tool operator and tender jobs are more likely to be reduced by these new technologies, because CNC machinery does the work more effectively. Conversely, demand for CNC machine programmers is expected to be strong. Demand for welding machine operators is also expected to be high because the skill required makes it harder to automate than other metal and plastic machine work.

The demand for metal and plastic machine workers also is affected by the demand for the parts they produce. Both the plastic and metal manufacturing industries face stiff foreign competition that is limiting the orders for parts produced in this country. Some U.S. manufacturers have sent their production to foreign countries, reducing jobs for machine setters and operators. However, some companies are bringing jobs back to the United States from overseas. This is expected to continue over the coming decade.

Job Prospects

Workers that are able to operate computer-numerically controlled machines are expected to have the best job prospects.

Despite declining employment, a number of these jobs are expected to become available for highly skilled workers, because of an expected increase in retirements in the coming years.

Workers who have an extensive background in machine operations, certifications from industry associations, and good knowledge of the properties of metals and plastics should have the best job opportunities.

For More Information

For more information about metal and plastic machine workers, including training and certification, visit 

Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International (FMA)

National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS)

For general information about manufacturing careers, machinery, and equipment, visit

Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT)

National Tooling and Machining Association (NTMA)

Precision Machined Products Association (PMPA)

Precision Metalforming Association (PMA)

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