One of the reasons Lexi Kline began a career in machining was to prove her five older brothers wrong. They believed she wasn’t capable of doing the job. Growing up as the youngest child and only girl, she was exposed to machining due to her dad’s interest and believes it made her more inclined to try it as a career.
Enrolling in Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology’s Computer Integrated Machining program during her high school senior year Kline “fell in love with being able to take a part and make something out of it.” Graduating in 2015 she started at DentalEz in their StarDental division almost immediately.
StarDental has developed and manufactured dental handpieces for over 100 years, and Kline’s first position was as an operator, running production jobs that were ready to go. After gaining some experience she added setup, programming the machine, to her responsibilities and now is a setup and operator of CNC (computer numerical controlled) vertical mills.
Kline says she learned the basics at Stevens and felt prepared when she entered the workforce. “With any machine shop everything is a little different. Coding might be different and the machines will have different tolerances. Manual machining won’t be as accurate as a CNC machine.”
Her first year at Stevens focused solely on manual machines, lathes, mills and grinders. Year two was mainly CNC learning how to code, followed by a software program that aids in drawing the part and generating the code to load into the machine for manufacture. “It was definitely challenging,” she says. “It was like learning a whole other language, but you can’t speak it.”
While the codes used at StarDental are relatively the same as those she learned at Stevens, people code differently for the same outcome. For example the order of steps can vary or how the part is drilled. Kline has become familiar with how co-workers code and now can read what’s happening when something is running.
The variety of parts they manufacture keeps things interesting and different day to day, and everyone has favorite jobs. One of Kline’s is manufacturing brass manifolds. All their parts are produced using brass, titanium, various stainless steels or aluminum. Each material is handled differently due to its tolerance and must be accounted for in the programming.
Burrs, raised edges or small pieces of material that remain attached after the machine completes the cycle, is the operator’s responsibility to remove. Greg Myers, StarDental production supervisor, explains that a burr can be controlled by speed or tool changes to acquire a better part, but will never be completely eliminated. The operator is required to deburr each piece using scrapers, buffing wheels and brushes. As the machine is processing the operator is reviewing each part to see if adjustments can be made and hand deburring.
While Kline was the only female in her class at Stevens, women are well represented in her department. Five of the 15 workers are women with tenure ranging from 18 months up to 28 years. And the majority of those in the assembly department are women. One of the reasons she chose StarDental was the atmosphere. She liked the people, and it seemed as though it would be a fun place to work and an interesting environment.
Myers says they don’t see many female applicants, but right now it’s a struggle to hire anyone due to the profession’s demand. “I prefer experience, but have hired people who have none and tried on-the-job training.” So far that hasn’t worked out. It’s not that they weren’t capable of the skills. It boiled down to a lack of timeliness, attitude and willingness to learn.
If he could locate the needed talent he would hire multiple machinists for backup and to prepare for current and upcoming retirements. In some cases currently only one person knows how to complete a job. Myers says, “There’s not enough people to keep our normal production going and train others.”
When considering an applicant – right out of school or someone with experience – Myers looks for responsibility, dedication and attitude. He knows those coming from a school have received a good foundation, require less training and are a step above everyone else. He’d hire more “Lexis” if he could.
For her part Kline “encourages people to look into machining. Machining in general is a skill a lot of people don’t consider, especially right out of high school. We need people to consider practical careers to make things. There’s always going to be a job.”