The first phase of this project focuses on the trade of engineering patternmaking (as well as closely associated trades and practices such as clay modelling, model making and prototyping). Engineering patternmakers work from engineering drawings and CAD files to construct and repair patterns and core-boxes (etc.) for manufacturing processes such as metal casting.
Engineering patternmakers are a telling example of the fate of skilled manufacturing trades in the global north. With the rise of CNC machine (computer-numerically-controlled) milling in the mid-1990s, the trade of engineering patternmaking shifted from one that was highly dependent on manual craft skill, to one that is, to a large extent, replaced by precision machining. Today, patternmakers (usually) use CNC milling, 3D printing, CAD, and other technologies, as part of their work. Their manual tasks are now involve hand-finishing and painting patterns.
The trade is not well known, and in the manufacturing industry it is often perceived to be ‘on the way out’. However engineering patternmakers and model makers are still working in patternshops, foundries and in industrial design around Australia, and their skills are in demand.
There is now only one educational institution in Australia that still offers a Cert III in Engineering Patternmaking (TAFE Queensland). Interstate employers – for example in Victoria – are (understandably) not willing to pay to send apprentices to attend trade school in Queensland. This means that sometimes employers hire unskilled labour (or people in other trades) and train them in-house, rather than offering formal apprenticeships. This can result in a loss of knowledge and quality – both in terms of the product being made, and the workers’ experience. Some employers think that with the increasing use of CNC machining and CAD, traditional patternmaking skills are no longer necessary. However, without the in-depth knowledge of patterns, material properties and manufacturing processes, costly mistakes can easily occur.
The pool of trained patternmakers is now virtually static, with the youngest patternmakers in their early to mid-30s, mostly planning to leave the industry to move into something which seems more secure. There are around 4800 engineering patternmakers in Australia, and it is a highly gendered trade: 96% are men (although there is no reason why this work would be inappropriate for women). While patternmakers can find their work satisfying for its variety and problem-solving activity, their work can also be understood as highly alienated – as it is now dominated by CNC machining, and the manual work now comprises hand-finishing and painting. (There are of course, exceptions to this rule, for example at Kelgrif Patterns in Melbourne.)
Many people who trained as engineering patternmakers no longer work as patternmakers: they have ‘retrained’ (in one way or another) as teachers, designers, artists, retail workers, farmers, business-owners, construction workers, etc. Regardless of whether or not they still work in the industry, patternmakers possess valuable skills and capacities. They are creative problem solvers; they possess manual and technical machine skills, visual literacy, artistic and design sensibility, geometric and mathematical understanding, and attention to detail. Patternmakers also possess an in-depth understanding of manufacturing processes and material properties. One question for Australia is whether these skills and experiences will be valued, and how they might be applied and reapplied in other contexts.
If you have trained as an engineering patternmaker, and you’re interested in participating in an interview, please get in touch. It doesn’t matter whether or not you still work in manufacturing. Click here for more information about the interview process.
These reflections on engineering patternmaking are in development — if you have any comments or feedback you are most welcome to share them in the comments or contact Jesse here.