Metal and plastic machine workers set up and operate machines that cut, shape, and form metal and plastic materials or pieces.
What they do
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 core making 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, core making, and casting machine setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate metal or plastic molding, casting, or core making 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).
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.
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.
How to become a Metal and Plastic Machine Worker
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.
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.
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.
Certification can show competence and can be helpful for advancement. The National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) offers certification in numerous metalworking specializations.
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.
Employment of metal and plastic machine workers is projected to decline 7 percent from 2019 to 2029. 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.
Similar Job Titles
Fabricator, Metal Model Maker, Model Builder, Model Maker, Molding Technician, Pattern Finisher, Prototype Special Build
Drilling and Boring Machine Tool Setter and Operator, Milling and Planing Machine Setter and Operator, Machinist, Patternmaker
The trade associations listed below represent organizations made up of people (members) who work and promote advancement in the field. Members are very interested in telling others about their work and about careers in those areas. As well, trade associations provide opportunities for organizational networking and learning more about the field’s trends and directions.
- Association of Professional Model Makers
- International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers
- United Steelworkers
Magazines and Publications
Consumer products are made with many metal and plastic parts. Metal and plastic machine workers set up the machines that produce the parts, and operate them during production. Hundreds of thousands of machine workers in the manufacturing industry work in different phases of production: following blueprints, they set up the machinery to produce the correct product. Machine setters prepare the machines before production and perform test runs of the initial batches, making repairs or adjustments as needed to ensure quality control. Then, operators take over, and may have to load the machine with metal or plastic materials or adjust machine controls during production. They periodically inspect the parts and conduct minor maintenance. At completion, they remove and test finished products, then document production numbers. Metal and plastic machine operators may specialize in a particular type of machine, for example: Computer-controlled machine tool operators operate robots to perform functions on workpieces. Computer numerically controlled machine tool programmers—called CNC workers— develop computer programs to control automated processes. They require more training than other machine workers. Extruding and drawing machine workers push out thermoplastic or metal materials in the form of tubes, rods, or hoses. Cutting, punching, and press machine workers run machines to saw, bend, or straighten materials. Molding, core making, and casting machine workers run machines to form 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. Manufacturing facilities typically employ machine workers full time, usually in shifts that include evenings, weekends, and frequent overtime. With automation, multiple machines may be controlled at the same time, so workers train on different machines and gain a variety of skills. Because these workers operate powerful, high-speed machines, most usually wear protective equipment, such as safety glasses, earplugs, and steel-toed boots. Respirators are common for those in the plastics industry who work near materials that emit dangerous fumes or dust. Employers prefer to hire candidates with high school education, then train machine operators on the job.
Content retrieved from: US Bureau of Labor Statistics-OOH www.bls.gov/ooh,
CareerOneStop www.careeronestop.org, O*Net Online www.onetonline.org