York County School of Technology working for the community — and NASA


A milling machine in York County School of Technology's precision machining workshop sprang to life Thursday morning, silently carving a metal square to be outfitted in a storage unit for a NASA rocket.

The mill was one of many machines lining the wall of the workshop, and its three new neighbors — the Haas ST-20, ST-10 and Super Mini Mill, which altogether cost well over $100,000 — just arrived Wednesday morning.

The new equipment uses computer numerical control machining.

"The biggest thing for this program is getting these machines that use CNC in here," said Terry Jamison, the precision machining technology teacher. "It allows us to work on a bigger variety of stuff. We do projects for anybody and everybody."

Recent ones include tractor weights, hurdles and a project for Thomasville Airport.

CNC machining: Computer numerical control machining is the programming used to guide precision tooling machines and one of the first things students have to grasp before completing any projects on the new machines.

"They have to learn all the codes," said Jamison. "It's kind of like learning a different language. It isn't as simple as typing 'move up or down 4 inches'; there's specific coding for everything."

The equipment is programmed for a specific project with customized codes that control feed rate, coordination, location and speeds.

Thanks to the coding, it took the milling machine only a few short minutes to cut the metal into the perfect shape and size, but just because the machine cut through the metal as though it were paper doesn't mean the task was easy for the hands behind it.

"A machine is only as smart as the person running it," Jamison said, noting that it could take at least an hour for his students to develop a code. "Putting the wrong code or number in could mess up the entire machine."

Precision machining relies heavily on a strong math base and metallurgy, or the way in which science is applied to the production of metals.

NASA: Students in the precision machining program, for the past two years, have been working on projects for the space program.

NASA approached Jamison after student John "Hunter" Mackison competed in the Pennsylvania State Championship for technical machining, Jamison said.

"Last year we made parts for the astronaut training program," Jamison said. "This year we kind of moved up the ladder and are making parts that will be used at the International Space Station."

Most recently, the students have been working on panels, locking mechanisms and hinges for single storage lockers for rockets.

The compact lockers can hold anything from science experiments to uniforms, Jamison said.

Each piece has a certain amount of tolerance — how far off the project's measurements can be from perfect.

A tolerance of 1,000 offers machinists a third the width of a human hair or 1/3000 of an inch of wiggle room, said Jamison.

"If that kind of thing gets messed up, it's scrap," said Jamison, noting that rarely happens unless the work is being done manually. "We are absolutely perfect with size — now that's a testament not only to the machine, but to the quality of the coding my kids are doing."

Once NASA projects are completed, they're stamped with a big "YoTech," inspected and sent off for assembly.

Classes: Students in the program are required to maintain good grades and expand their academic horizons through the scope of their trade.

Students, on the first day of their schedule, will have a 95-minute class period with Jamison where he focuses mainly on theory. The next day students will meet in the workshop for double the time for a more hands-on class and continue this pattern through the week.

Students also have opportunities to receive certifications through the National Institute for Metalworking Skills. Jamison and an additional three industry professionals inspect certification projects, and students are then required to complete a written exam to achieve any certification, Jamison said.

The rest of their schedule consists of general education classes.

Upperclassmen have the opportunity to join a co-op program that allows them to work on their trade outside the classroom and have supervisors grade them.

"If they start doing poorly academically, they're taken out of the co-op program," Jamison said. "We don't want these kids to think because they've found these jobs they can forsake academics."

Jobs: Precision machining technology is a high-priority occupation, Jamison said, noting that it was second in priority only to medicine.

In the near future, the industry will see a lot of retirement, Jamison said, thus creating a lot of open jobs. He added that there are also a lot of companies doing work in China and other foreign countries looking to bring machining closer to home.

"The change in technology is constant, which brings about a need for educated workers," Jamison said.

Students in the precision machining technology program often find jobs before they even graduate.

"I've had at least 14 companies or so since Christmas come in here, looking to hire," he said.

It's his students' drive to be creative that takes them far, Jamison said.

"They're people who like working," Jamison said. "But more than that, they have to have the desire to create something from nothing, and they all love to create."

— Reach Jessica Schladebeck at jschladebeck@yorkdispatch.com.