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What Metal and Plastic Machine Workers Do About this section

Metal and plastic machine workers
Metal and plastic machine workers monitor and adjust machines during operation.

Metal and plastic machine workers set up and operate equipment that cuts, shapes, and forms metal and plastic materials or pieces.

Duties

Metal and plastic machine workers typically do the following:

  • Set up and adjust machines according to blueprints
  • Monitor machines status to ensure proper functioning
  • Insert material into machines, either manually or using material handling equipment
  • Operate shaping and forming equipment, such as metal or plastic molding, casting, or coremaking machines
  • Operate stock removal metalworking machines, such as lathes or mills
  • Adjust machine settings for temperature, cycle times, and speed and feed rates
  • Remove finished products and document output in a database
  • Measure, test, and inspect finished workpieces according to blueprints
  • Observe and adjust or replace dull or damaged cutting tools

Metal and plastic machine workers operate equipment that creates the parts for consumer products. In general, these workers are separated into two groups: those who set up machines for operation and those who operate machines during production. However, many workers perform both tasks.

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

Machine setters, or setup workers, prepare the machines before production, do test runs, and, if necessary, adjust and make minor repairs to the machinery before and during operation. Computer numerically controlled (CNC) setters upload computer control programs.

After installing the tools into a machine, setup workers often produce the initial batch of goods, inspect the products, and turn over the machine to an operator.

Machine operators and tenders monitor the machinery during production.

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 machine speeds during production. They must periodically inspect the parts that a machine produces to ensure everything works properly, repairing equipment as needed. For example, the parts a machine produces may show defects if the cutting tool inside a machine becomes dull or damaged after extended use. When that happens, it is common for an operator to remove the worn tool and replace it with a new one produced by tool and die makers. Operators may fix minor problems themselves but may have an industrial machinery mechanic fix more serious problems.

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 machines, others are trained to set up or operate a variety of them. Automation often allows machine operators to control multiple machines at the same time.

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 range of skills.

The following are examples of types of metal and plastic machine workers:

Computer numerically controlled tool operators operate CNC equipment or robots to perform functions on metal or plastic workpieces.

Computer numerically controlled tool programmers develop computer programs to control the machining or processing of metal or plastic parts by automatic machine tools, equipment, or systems.

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.

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 into parts.

Foundry mold and coremakers make or form wax or sand cores or molds used in the production of metal castings in foundries.

Grinding, lapping, polishing, and buffing machine tool setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate grinding and related machine tools that remove excess material from surfaces, sharpen edges or corners, or buff or polish metal or plastic workpieces.

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.

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 bars, rods, and castings.

Metal-refining furnace operators and tenders operate or tend furnaces, such as gas, oil, coal, electric-arc or electric-induction, and oxygen furnaces. These furnaces may be used to melt and refine metal before casting.

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.

Model makers set up and operate machines, such as milling and engraving machines, to make working models of metal or plastic objects. They may also use 3D printing technology.

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 two or more types of cutting or forming machine tool or robot.

Patternmakers lay out, machine, fit, and assemble castings and parts to metal or plastic foundry patterns and core molds.

Plating machine setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate plating machines and perform chemical checks for coating metal or plastic products with zinc, copper, nickel, or some other metal to protect or decorate surfaces.

Pourers and casters operate computer- or hand-controlled machines to pour and regulate the flow of molten metal into molds to produce castings or ingots.

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.

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.

Work Environment About this section

Metal and plastic machine workers
Metal and plastic machine workers usually wear protective equipment, such as safety glasses.

Metal and plastic machine workers held about 1.0 million jobs in 2021. 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 183,300
Molding, coremaking, and casting machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 166,100
Computer numerically controlled tool operators 160,400
Multiple machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 139,500
Grinding, lapping, polishing, and buffing machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 69,000
Extruding and drawing machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 60,600
Plating machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 33,000
Welding, soldering, and brazing machine setters, operators, and tenders 32,300
Rolling machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 32,100
Computer numerically controlled tool programmers 26,200
Lathe and turning machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 20,000
Metal-refining furnace operators and tenders 15,900
Milling and planing machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 15,200
Heat treating equipment setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 14,900
Foundry mold and coremakers 14,000
Forging machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 11,800
Drilling and boring machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 6,900
Pourers and casters, metal 6,700
Model makers, metal and plastic 3,800
Patternmakers, metal and plastic 2,100

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

Fabricated metal product manufacturing 25%
Plastics and rubber products manufacturing 17
Transportation equipment manufacturing 15
Primary metal manufacturing 11
Machinery manufacturing 11

Injuries and Illnesses

These workers often operate powerful, high-speed machines that can be dangerous and must observe safety rules. Operators usually wear protective equipment, such as safety glasses, earplugs, and steel-toed boots, to guard against 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. Some work more than 40 hours per week. Because many manufacturers run their machinery for extended periods, evening and weekend work is also common.

How to Become a Metal or Plastic Machine Worker About this section

Metal and plastic machine workers
Metal and plastic machine workers must be able to stand for long periods and perform repetitive work.

Metal and plastic workers typically need a high school diploma to enter the occupation and receive 1 year of on-the-job training. Computer numerically controlled (CNC) tool programmers typically need postsecondary education.

Education

Although metal and plastic machine workers typically need a high school diploma, CNC tool programmers usually need 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 metal and plastic machine workers, high school classes in computer programming, math, and vocational technology may be useful.

Training

Machine operator trainees usually begin by watching and helping experienced workers on the job. Under supervision, they may supply materials, start and stop the machines, or remove finished products. Then, they advance to operators’ more difficult tasks, such as adjusting feeds and speeds, replacing tools, and measuring finished products for conformance. Eventually, some operators 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. Others, such as CNC tool operators, may need training for up to 1 year.

Because of the prevalence of computerized machines in manufacturing, training on computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), and CNC equipment may 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

With skill and experience, workers may advance to positions that offer higher pay and more responsibility. It is common for machine operators to move into setup or machinery maintenance positions. Setup workers may become industrial machinery mechanics and maintenance workers, machinists, or tool and die makers.

Experienced workers with good communication and analytical skills may advance to supervisory positions.

Important Qualities

Computer skills. Metal and plastic machine workers must be able to use programmable devices, computers, and robots on the factory floor.

Mechanical skills. These workers must be comfortable with machines and have a good understanding of how all the parts work.

Physical stamina. Metal and plastic machine workers must be able to stand for long periods and do repetitive tasks.

Physical strength. Metal and plastic machine workers must be able to secure and tighten heavy fixtures into place.

Pay About this section

Metal and Plastic Machine Workers

Median annual wages, May 2021

Total, all occupations

$45,760

Metal and plastic machine workers

$38,040

Production occupations

$37,710

 

The median annual wage for metal and plastic machine workers was $38,040 in May 2021. 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 $29,050, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $60,110.

Median annual wages for metal and plastic machine workers in May 2021 were as follows:

Computer numerically controlled tool programmers $60,780
Model makers, metal and plastic 55,630
Patternmakers, metal and plastic 48,090
Milling and planing machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 46,850
Metal-refining furnace operators and tenders 46,690
Computer numerically controlled tool operators 46,640
Rolling machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 46,210
Pourers and casters, metal 45,850
Forging machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 44,520
Lathe and turning machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 44,240
Drilling and boring machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 38,580
Welding, soldering, and brazing machine setters, operators, and tenders 38,580
Heat treating equipment setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 38,450
Extruding and drawing machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 37,750
Foundry mold and coremakers 37,710
Cutting, punching, and press machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 37,630
Multiple machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 37,630
Grinding, lapping, polishing, and buffing machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 37,550
Plating machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 37,200
Molding, coremaking, and casting machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 36,370

In May 2021, the median annual wages for metal and plastic machine workers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Machinery manufacturing $46,010
Transportation equipment manufacturing 43,790
Primary metal manufacturing 40,190
Fabricated metal product manufacturing 38,280
Plastics and rubber products manufacturing 36,640

Most metal and plastic machine workers are employed full time. Some work more than 40 hours per week. Because many manufacturers run their machinery for extended periods, evening and weekend work also is common.

Job Outlook About this section

Metal and Plastic Machine Workers

Percent change in employment, projected 2021-31

Total, all occupations

5%

Production occupations

-2%

Metal and plastic machine workers

-5%

 

Overall employment of metal and plastic machine workers is projected to decline 5 percent from 2021 to 2031.

Despite declining employment, about 101,700 openings for metal and plastic machine workers are projected each year, on average, over the decade. All of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.

Employment

Projected employment of metal and plastic machine workers varies by occupation (see table).

One of the most important factors influencing employment of these workers is the use of laborsaving machinery. Many firms are continuing to expand the use of technologies, such as computer numerically controlled (CNC) tools and robots, to improve quality and lower production costs. The use of CNC equipment requires CNC tool programmers instead of machine setters, operators, and tenders. Therefore, demand for most manual tool operators and tenders is likely to be reduced, while demand for CNC tool programmers is expected to be strong.

Employment of metal and plastic machine workers also is affected by the demand for the parts they produce. Both plastic and metal manufacturing industries face foreign competition that limits the orders for parts produced in this country. Changes in the cost of operations in the United States and abroad may encourage some manufacturers to bring back production that was previously sent offshore. However, new facilities in the United States will likely incorporate more automation technologies, requiring less labor overall.

Employment projections data for metal and plastic machine workers, 2021-31
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2021 Projected Employment, 2031 Change, 2021-31 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Metal and plastic machine workers

1,014,000 968,100 -5 -45,900

Extruding and drawing machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4021 60,600 61,000 1 400 Get data

Forging machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4022 11,800 9,600 -18 -2,200 Get data

Rolling machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4023 32,100 28,700 -11 -3,500 Get data

Cutting, punching, and press machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4031 183,300 170,100 -7 -13,200 Get data

Drilling and boring machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4032 6,900 5,600 -19 -1,300 Get data

Grinding, lapping, polishing, and buffing machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4033 69,000 63,000 -9 -6,100 Get data

Lathe and turning machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4034 20,000 18,200 -9 -1,800 Get data

Milling and planing machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4035 15,200 12,500 -18 -2,700 Get data

Metal-refining furnace operators and tenders

51-4051 15,900 14,900 -6 -1,000 Get data

Pourers and casters, metal

51-4052 6,700 5,900 -13 -800 Get data

Model makers, metal and plastic

51-4061 3,800 3,500 -7 -300 Get data

Patternmakers, metal and plastic

51-4062 2,100 1,900 -10 -200 Get data

Foundry mold and coremakers

51-4071 14,000 12,400 -11 -1,600 Get data

Molding, coremaking, and casting machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4072 166,100 165,200 -1 -900 Get data

Multiple machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4081 139,500 143,400 3 4,000 Get data

Welding, soldering, and brazing machine setters, operators, and tenders

51-4122 32,300 29,700 -8 -2,600 Get data

Heat treating equipment setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4191 14,900 13,500 -10 -1,500 Get data

Plating machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4193 33,000 29,600 -10 -3,400 Get data

Computer numerically controlled tool operators

51-9161 160,400 147,600 -8 -12,800 Get data

Computer numerically controlled tool programmers

51-9162 26,200 31,800 21 5,500 Get data

Contacts for More Information About this section

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)

Occupational Requirements Survey

For a profile highlighting selected BLS data on occupational requirements, see

Cutting, punching, and press machine setters, operators, and tenders (PDF)

O*NET

Computer Numerically Controlled Tool Operators

Computer Numerically Controlled Tool Programmers

Cutting, Punching, and Press Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Drilling and Boring Machine Tool Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Extruding and Drawing Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Forging Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Foundry Mold and Coremakers

Grinding, Lapping, Polishing, and Buffing Machine Tool Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Heat Treating Equipment Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Lathe and Turning Machine Tool Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Metal-Refining Furnace Operators and Tenders

Milling and Planing Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Model Makers, Metal and Plastic

Molding, Coremaking, and Casting Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Multiple Machine Tool Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Patternmakers, Metal and Plastic

Plating Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Pourers and Casters, Metal

Rolling Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Welding, Soldering, and Brazing Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders

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