Minnesota West's Precision Machining program has been around since the 1960s. It's seen women in the program occasionally, and this spring, Annie Magnuson will be the latest.
Ray Louwagie is the instructor. He describes the program as, "The students learn how to operate the machines to make parts with close tolerance and high precision. We use CNC (Computer Numeric Control) machines. Students learn to program the machines and learn the process to make the part and select the machine to meet the specs.
They work to 1/10,000th of an inch, or 1/20th the width of a human hair. It's a 9 month course. There's a lot of hands on with the machines, and a focus on the CNC machines, which are the industry standard." They work through projects, each project is set up to teach them specific machines, as well as broader concepts. Magnuson enjoys the puzzle aspect, the challenge of figuring out problems as they come up. "It's like an old Mario game, if you run out of lives, you don't start at the save point, you have to start all the way over." Her favorite project so far was making a toy top. They didn't have blueprints to work from, so it was a lot of trial and error. "It gave me so many headaches but it was so satisfying when it finally worked."
Other projects include a 3D cube puzzle, adding threads (like to a pipe), engraving, making a trailer ball hitch, drill bits or other tools. They do a good variety to get practice on the machines, lathes, mills, grinders, and more.
Magnuson always had a knack for computers, so she started her education in computer science in Marshall. She tried going to Brookings and ran out of money. Her parents said they would help her if she would go for a four year degree, but her brain needed a break. She chose to get a theatre degree, which was a different type of hard work.
She was aware of the difficulty of making a living in theatre, and was talking with Louwagie when she was boarding her horse there. He suggested she check out the machining program and it clicked right away.
She's now been in school for a total of six years, and is ready to be "out in the real world." She will be started at The Specialty Manufacturing Company after she graduates. She wants to get into the management aspect of the industry. "I have to put in my hours and pay my dues. They look at experience and how good you are."
When her nose isn't to the grindstone, Magnuson also does competitive archery and trains horses. Her specialty is Arabian and Morgan horses, typically known to be "hot-blooded," which comes in handy to help her keep a cool head to deal with any problems machines or life throws at her.
Louwagie's biggest advice for people in the program is patience. "There's going to be scrap. We have some leeway in school, but in the industry, either the part works or it doesn't."