Rob Redden started machining right out of high school. "Back then, in the 1980s, the schools had great industrial arts programs," he said. "All through junior high and senior high, I took metals. I love to work with my hands."
After working as a machinist trainee, Redden moved to companies that specialized in high-tolerance medical components made on computer-controlled Swiss machines. "Then I started my own machine shop and ran it for 10 years," Redden said. In 2006, Multisource Manufacturing bought the company, and now he works for them.
"The advantage to a Swiss type machine is that it allows you to machine the part complete in one operation," Redden said. "With other machines, you may run a thousand parts on one machine, then move them to the next machine, and then to a third machine. Every time you handle the part, you're losing accuracy, efficiency and time. "
Redden also started teaching Swiss machining at Hennepin Technical College at about the same time he sold his company. "Being an adjunct instructor, I bring a unique perspective. For 24 years, I've made real parts for real customers. I can share with students the kinds of parts customers are buying. Being in an ownership and management role, I have the perspective of a prospective employer."
Swiss machining is in demand nationwide, but Redden says the need is especially high in the Twin Cities. "Minneapolis is a hub for medical manufacturing. This is a technology hub where very precise parts are made. Some of the parts are so small that you look at them in the machine through a microscope."
What special skills do you need?
You have to have the ability to visualize what's happening in the machine. The majority of companies program Swiss machines right at the machine, by hand. Some do the programming on a laptop with an editor, but at a large percentage of companies the guy is standing at the machine, programming it off the top of his head. You need a good general work ethic. Good math skills, for sure. You need an eye for detail and mechanical aptitude. More important than anything, you need a willingness to learn.
Do medical device components have special requirements?
It's such a unique industry. It's not good enough for the parts to meet the tolerance on the drawing. It has to be cosmetically perfect as well. A microscopic burr or void could potentially kill somebody. They're places for bacteria to grow. Any sharp edge could break off. In a part used in an instrument that a doctor holds in his hand, it could cut the patient or cut the doctor's glove.
How do you get the experience needed when you can't get a job without experience?
Employers understand the Catch-22. That's where the technical college steps up. If you're running a lathe now and took the three classes I teach, you'd qualify.
Is the training a good investment?
With a two-year degree and a few years of experience, a machinist can easily make more than an accountant. Demand has really grown. The company I work for is very diverse; a big focus is medical devices but there's also aerospace, commercial stuff, equipment building. It's very rewarding, especially when you're making medical parts. You know that you're making something that saves somebody's life.