February 4, 2019
By Tim Heston

Several weeks ago I visited Metcam, a precision custom metal fabricator north of Atlanta, and had the pleasure of speaking with Ken Roostee, shop planner and longtime sheet metal guy.

As I sat down in his cubicle, Roostee showed me a bottoming brake tool set he developed for forming a complex bracket in three stations. After the third stroke of the ram, a small, complex part emerge, dead-nuts accurate.

Roostee showed me his manual, “freestyle” nesting strategies for the punch press, went into detail about the subtleties of microjoints and web sections sufficient to support a stable nest, but narrow enough for optimal material utilization. Roostee tackles every job as a puzzle. Those puzzles spur the kind of creativity that make him happy to go to work every day.

Oh, and another thing: Roostee will be retiring very soon.

Metcam has had a solid training and coaching structure in place, so Roostee’s knowledge isn’t about to head out the door entirely. And when Roostee retires, he won’t disappear. He just won’t be available at a moment’s notice.

Regardless, Metcam certainly isn’t alone. Numerous Roostees have retired from this business over the past decade, and more are sure to follow. What makes this retirement wave a little different, though, is the role of software, modern controls, and automation. These days you’d be hard-pressed to find a press brake operator in a production environment working through bend allowance and bend deduction formulas. CAD/CAM takes care of the flat calculations.

But software does only what it’s told, of course. In air bending, those calculations still need to be based on the die width being used. Change the die width and you change the inside radius, which changes your bend allowance, flat blank size, and nesting layout on the laser or punch. Get the die width or material thickness wrong, and the dominoes fall.

It’s not just a matter of pressing buttons. The industry still needs to unlock the knowledge that’s stored in the guru’s brain, gained only through years of experience. I believe this is one reason behind the industry trending toward hiring for attitude. People with the right attitude gain their coworkers’ trust, including the trust of those gurus. Combine this with the ability to ask good questions, and a young machine operator could go very far in the fab shop.