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Instructor Steve Henkelman programs a CNC machine at Grand Rapids Community College. Credit: Dustin Dwyer

This month, we’re taking a look at some of the hidden assets of the industrial Midwest – the parts of our economy that don’t often get noticed when we talk about our strengths.

We found one hidden asset right smack in the middle of our manufacturing sector. It’s a machine that’s in literally thousands of factories across the Midwest. And, though, you might not have heard of it before, the CNC machine – and the people who operate it – are at the core of our economy.

CNC stands for computer-numerically-controlled. And what the computerized machine does is it machines things. That sounds ridiculous unless you know that machine is not just a noun. It’s also a specific manufacturing process.

It’s when you cut away a material. It’s basically commercial sculpting.

“Machining is at, or very close to, the foundation of manufacturing,” says Peter Zelinski, senior editor at Modern Machine Shop magazine.

Zelinski says, even if you’ve never heard of it, CNC machining is essential to your life.

“Any product you pick up and touch, it’s not too many steps away from a machining process,” he says.

Most of the parts in your car engine come from a CNC machine. Your kitchen cabinets – CNC machine. Your computer case, your iPhone earbuds – well, no. But the mold that created them – CNC machine.

Zelinski says the growth of these machines represents the biggest change in manufacturing over the last 20 years.

The people who run them are factory workers. But they also have to be computer programmers.

CNC machinists are factory workers. But they need to be computer programmers too. Credit: Dustin Dwyer

Steve Henkelman is a teacher at Grand Rapids Community College. He points to a computer keypad, hanging off a big gray box, and tries to explain to me the programming code for CNC machines.

Trent Ohren is one of the students in Henkelman’s class.

Ohren says he has friends who do other, more traditional, manufacturing work. CNC machining is nothing like it.

“They’re in more of the automotive,” Ohren says. “So going to the bar right after they get out of work, as opposed to when I do, it’s night and day difference.   They’re covered in oil, and I smell like daisies.”

And the pay’s not too bad either.

Trent could come out of this 18-week class and get a job that pays close to double the minimum wage. More experienced machinists can make $50,000 – $60,000 a year. And they don’t need a four year degree to get there.

Right now, manufacturers are desperate for these workers.

Mike Hellman is one of the people looking for a skilled CNC machinist. He’s head of human resources for Display Pack, a company in Grand Rapids, Mich. Display Pack makes that impossible-to-open clear plastic packaging. The molds for the packaging are made on CNC machines.

Hellman’s been looking for a machinist for three months with no luck. A few years ago, machinists were getting laid off. Now no one can find them.

“People that I know that are in the industry, they’re back to work sometimes in a week,” Hellman says. “If they just put in the effort, start going and walking into the tool and die shops, they’re going to find somebody that’s in the same boat we are, where they’re looking for somebody.”

Last year, The Manufacturing Institute surveyed companies, and found that as many as 600,000 jobs are going unfilled in this country, because there aren’t enough good workers.

And the biggest chunk of that number is for skilled production workers, including CNC machinists.

Peter Zelinski from Modern Machine Shop magazine, says it’s one of the biggest problems U.S. manufacturers face.

“It wouldn’t be competition from China,” he says. “The number one concern right now is finding skilled people.”

And that’s really what the future of manufacturing in the Midwest is about. Smarter workers. Smarter machines. With computer numerically controlled machines at the heart of it all.

Previously, Changing Gears’s Kate Davidson reported on “lights-out machining,” a process that uses CNC machines. Niala Boodhoo reported on the high demand for high-skill workers, Dan Bobkoff asked “What is advanced manufacturing?” and we blogged about the soaring sales for machine tools, which includes CNC machines.