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To The Future - And Beyond
By Brendan Baker
If there is one thing the future of the industry depends on more than anything else it is highly educated and trained machinists and technicians. As tomorrow’s engines bring advanced technologies like computers, high-tech alloys, tighter tolerances, marble-like surface finishes and extreme emission and mileage limitations, future engine rebuilders will need to have the skills to keep up with this evolving field. This evolution is predicted to involve higher entry-level education requirements, and a philosophy of career-long learning.
Today’s engine builders aren’t trained well enough, according to Joe Mondello, owner of Mondello Technical School, Paso Robles, CA. "We need to push the education portion (of the industry)." Mondello has had over 40 years experience and has seen just about everything there is in the industry. "I teach 40 "years" a week at my school," he says half joking. But those who have taken his courses know it’s true.
A big problem is that many shops aren’t willing or able to invest in the latest equipment. According to Mondello, shops need "fixed valve-cutting machines, digital torque wrenches, etc." He says that technicians are going to have to invest in the future as well. "You’ve got to know the materials and how to work with them. You’ve got to learn about alloys, electronics and machining."
The key, says Mondello, is education at good learning centers: modern facilities, modern knowledge and modern tools. "A lot of people don’t do things like torque cycle bolts." He thinks that there are too many builders out there stuck in their ways. The engines today (and in the future) are not very forgiving. "Guys just can’t use worn out stuff anymore," he says.
Mondello is frustrated that his classes are not more full because he feels that most of the shops out there could really benefit from his instruction. He describes his courses as a "real eye opener" to the students. Even ones who are industry veterans have learned more than they thought they would.
John Konecny, a Dana Technical School instructor, Ottawa Lake, MI, agrees that education is the key. Training in the future will differ from today "being more of a tool and die type experience. The operator environment will go away – it will become more automated." This will likely require more on-the-job training and more classroom training. Education will have to be an "on going process – now and in the future," he says.
Will there be enough students to fill the demand for technicians/engine builders? Rick Kearns, Curriculum Training Manager for Federal Mogul Technical Education Center (TEC), St. Louis, MO, says, "what other career requires you to invest 10 percent of your pay to buy equipment and tools to do the job quicker, better and for less money for the service?" Right now, it’s cloudy at best if the demand for technicians/engine builders can be satisfied.
What will tomorrow’s engine builder have to learn? The future engine builder will have to be "smart at math – have hands on machining skills, and be more educated – probably with at least a high school diploma plus a two-year associates degree, preferably in an engineering or technical field," says Konecny.
Specifically, according to Kearns, technicians will need to have the knowledge to know how to work on new technology engines. They will have to learn things like surface finish requirements for multi-layer steel (MLS) head gaskets. They’ll need to understand engine design changes that lower tailpipe emissions. On top of that, they will have to learn things like piston selection and be able to fit to cylinder bores, preventing the malfunction information light (MIL) from illuminating.
Every one of the training schools we talked with said that computer numerical control (CNC) mini-machine cells are the wave of the future. Today, more and more engine builders rely on this technology to do everything from top to bottom. "It’s already beginning in a lot of shops today," says Konecny. "A lot of the shops I visit have these CNC machines – you just put in the block, or head or whatever and out comes practically a finished product."
The industry is changing so fast and there has been more change in the last 3-5 years than there has been in the previous 15-20 years, Konecny concludes.
Paul Nelson, Instructor at Northwest Technical College in Bemidji, MN, says that CNC machine use is projected go up ten fold in the next 10 years – from roughly 200 to 2,000 CNC machines. Nelson also points out that there are still lots of opportunities in niche markets. "Lots of students want to learn high-performance these days."
Move over OE, niche markets are where many in the industry are putting their eggs these days. According to some industry insiders, there is a great deal of money being spent in areas such as street high-performance, racing and restoration, to name a few. Niches actually require a lot more specialization. Engine builders that get into niches such as sprint/stock car engine building or restoration engines, have to learn a different set of skills. You may have to learn how to make certain pieces that are no longer available, or pick up some "speed secret" that sets you apart from the competition.
Many instructors believe that by exploiting niche markets it may help attract new blood and breathe new life into the industry. Mondello and Konecny are a little concerned over the lack of new students at their schools. They say the students they have now are mostly returning students and mostly older too.
All of the schools we interviewed noted an apparent "talent drain" happening in the industry.
"The reason we are losing our younger and very talented people is because they see that they have no future," explains Nelson. "They aren’t making a living wage to support themselves or their families. They don’t know when they will, if ever, get a raise – so they start looking for a job and leave a career they love to pursue a job that will pay for their needs and give some sense of security."
"We are going to have to find a way to appeal more to young people," admits Konecny. He believes that there needs to be more young people who choose the rebuilding industry as their career path.
Today kids are more likely to be brought up working on a computer than on a car. Granted, everyone still has a car, but cars aren’t like what they used to be. They’re not as easy for the average backyard mechanic to tinker with as in the past.
Consequently, mechanical skills are never developed, therefore, that career path closes more easily. Baseball has seen a similar phenomenon; it went from being America’s past time to steadily declining participation in the Little Leagues. The engine building industry needs to be more competitive with other industries in compensation and benefits, otherwise it will risk losing its most precious commodity: Its people.