Studio Notes: Boot Camp for Metalsmiths

The ad said the word “free.” OK. So it was a five-day manufacturer’s boot camp. But since it was free, I felt more than qualified to attend. Offered by Alpena Community College, I talked my way into going on a tour of Metal-Tech Industries. Heck. The company’s name even had the word “metal” in it. So I thought it would be perfect, because I work with precious “metal.”

Thus, in the middle of a savage storm here is North East Michigan, I found myself inside a giant factory with a dozen ACC students. I also learned the company’s real specialty is making conveyor belts. OK. Like a really, really big metalsmithing project, with the help of computers.

Tip: In the photo of the tiny bicycles, each square of the graph paper is only 1/5 of an inch.

What I learned:

  • Safety glasses must be worn everywhere. Didn’t need the hardhat I brought.
  • Stacks of giant steel sheets were everywhere. They had sharp corners. I pretended they were giant sheets of sterling silver as thick as a quarter inch.
  • To keep orders straight, workers placed cut parts on large hand trollies, along with the appropriate paperwork. I use small plastic bins from Hobby Lobby.
  • A really cool computer-programmed, hole punching machine, called a Trumph Trumatic, made a steady beat you could dance to. It seemed almost human, but shut down immediately if you got within 10 feet of it. Oops.
  • The guys on the floor were really, really focused on what they were doing, usually working in pairs in an environment full of risk.
  • A laser punching machine, in its own room-sized box, precision cut square holes in thick sheets of steel. I wish I could cut square holes in anything.
  • I didn’t see any restrooms for women. They are probably somewhere else.

Phil, our guide, showed us samples that were made by computer-driven shearing, punching, laser cutting and bending. One was a laser-cut bicycle smaller than a quarter. It would take me a long time to cut that out of sheet silver with a jeweler’s saw. It had been cut by a high tech laser.

The other item was a shallow, laser etched and bent cone. Might make a nice sterling silver vessel.

Also popular was a biplane that had been folded out of a sheet of punched steel. On a much smaller scale and with a touch of solder, they’d make a great pair of earrings.

Next time, I’ll take the whole course. The sessions on logistics; 3D CAD; 2D print creation; material cutting; speeds and calculations; inspection and management. After my tour, sounds like they would leave me breathless.

P.S. Alpena Community College is an exceptional treasure up here, and specializes in manufacturing, the trades, concrete technology, and nursing. Metal-Tech does custom shearing, punching, bending, forming, and etching. They also have computer programs such as Solidworks, Autocad, Cadkey. Inventor, DXF and DWG. And they can work with a lot of different types of industrial metals — mild steel, stainless steel, aluminum, galvanized….


Betsy Lehndorff is a Michigan silversmith and has been writing for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 2010. Her latest article, Tube and Chain Necklace with Pearl, appeared in the March 2017 issue. Watch for Betsy’s story on Colorado diamonds and her easy demo for setting diamond crystals in the September/October, 2017, issue.

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