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, cycle times, and speed and feed rates
  • 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. Many workers, however, perform both tasks.

Although many workers both set up and operate machines, some may specialize in being a machine setter or a machine operator and tender.

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. Machine operators are often able to control multiple machines at the same time because of increased automation.

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 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, and oxygen furnaces. These furnaces may be used 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 1.1 million jobs in 2018. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up metal and plastic machine workers was distributed as follows:

Cutting, punching, and press machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 188,800
Molding, coremaking, and casting machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 166,000
Computer-controlled machine tool operators, metal and plastic 151,600
Multiple machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 135,900
Extruding and drawing machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 76,500
Grinding, lapping, polishing, and buffing machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic                           75,400
Plating and coating machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 40,600
Welding, soldering, and brazing machine setters, operators, and tenders 37,700
Lathe and turning machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 29,900
Rolling machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 27,100
Computer numerically controlled machine tool programmers, metal and plastic 24,300
Heat treating equipment setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 20,000
Milling and planing machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 19,800
Forging machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 18,600
Metal-refining furnace operators and tenders 18,100
Foundry mold and coremakers 15,900
Drilling and boring machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 11,600
Pourers and casters, metal 8,000
Model makers, metal and plastic 5,300
Patternmakers, metal and plastic 2,900

The largest employers of metal and plastic machine workers were as follows:

Fabricated metal product manufacturing 26%
Plastics and rubber products manufacturing                                16
Transportation equipment manufacturing 13
Primary metal manufacturing 12
Machinery manufacturing 11

Injuries and Illnesses

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, earplugs, and steel-toed boots to protect them from flying particles of metal or plastic, machine noise, and heavy objects, respectively.

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.

Welding, soldering, and brazing machine setters, operators, and tenders have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations.

Work Schedules

Most metal and plastic machine workers are employed full time. Overtime is common, and because many manufacturers run their machinery for extended periods, evening and weekend work is also common.

Education and Training

Most metal and plastic workers have a high school diploma and learn through on-the-job training typically lasting a year. Computer numerically controlled (CNC) machine tool programmers, however, typically need to complete courses beyond high school.

Education

Although most metal and plastic machine workers typically have a high school diploma, many computer numerically controlled machine tool programmers usually need to complete 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 most metal and plastic machine workers, high school courses in computer programming, vocational technology, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and basic statistics are considered useful.

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 by removing finished products. Then they advance to more difficult tasks that operators perform, such as adjusting feed speeds, changing cutting tools, and inspecting a finished product for defects. Eventually, some develop the skills and experience to set up machines.

The complexity of the equipment usually determines the time required to become an operator. Some operators and tenders are trained on basic machine operations and functions in a few months, but other workers, such as computer-controlled machine tool operators, may need up to a year to become trained.

As the manufacturing process continues to utilize more computerized machinery, training on computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), and CNC machines can be helpful.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Certification can show competence and can be helpful for advancement. The National Institute for Metalworking Skills  (NIMS) offers certification in numerous metalworking specializations.

Advancement

Advancement usually includes higher pay and more responsibilities. With experience and expertise, workers can become trainees for more advanced 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, or machinists or tool and die makers.

Experienced 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 annual wage for metal and plastic machine workers was $36,990 in May 2019. 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 $25,000, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $58,200.

Median annual wages for metal and plastic machine workers in May 2019 were as follows:

Model makers, metal and plastic $57,020
Computer numerically controlled machine tool programmers, metal and plastic 56,450
Patternmakers, metal and plastic 46,910
Milling and planing machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 43,210
Metal-refining furnace operators and tenders 42,250
Computer-controlled machine tool operators, metal and plastic 41,200
Rolling machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 40,490
Lathe and turning machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 40,100
Forging machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 39,670
Drilling and boring machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 38,910
Pourers and casters, metal 38,620
Welding, soldering, and brazing machine setters, operators, and tenders 38,310
Heat treating equipment setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 38,250
Multiple machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 36,330
Extruding and drawing machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 36,320
Grinding, lapping, polishing, and buffing machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic                                   36,100
Cutting, punching, and press machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 35,610
Foundry mold and coremakers 35,590
Plating and coating machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 33,500
Molding, coremaking, and casting machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 32,130

In May 2019, the median annual wages for metal and plastic machine workers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Machinery manufacturing $40,120
Primary metal manufacturing 39,280
Transportation equipment manufacturing 38,870
Fabricated metal product manufacturing 37,390
Plastics and rubber products manufacturing                                    32,370

Most metal and plastic machine workers are employed full time. Overtime is common, and because many manufacturers run their machinery for extended periods, evening and weekend work also is common.

Job Outlook

Employment of metal and plastic machine workers is projected to decline 8 percent from 2018 to 2028. Employment declines are expected to stem from continued advances in technology and foreign competition.

One of the most important factors influencing employment of these occupations is the use of labor-saving machinery. Many firms are adopting 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 manual machine tool operators and tenders is likely to be reduced by these new technologies, and conversely, demand for CNC machine programmers is expected to be strong.

The demand for metal and plastic machine workers is also affected by the demand for the parts they produce. Both the plastic and metal manufacturing industries face foreign competition that limits the orders for parts produced in this country. Some U.S. manufacturers have moved 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, and this is expected to continue over the coming decade.

Job Prospects

Most job opportunities will result from the need to replace workers who leave these occupations.

Workers who are able to operate CNC machines and have industry certifications should also have best job prospects.

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 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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