by Noelle Stapinsky
SHOP Metalworking Technology (SMT) spotlights four passionate people and their careers in the skilled trades world
As the demand for skilled trades workers continues to rise, the rate of those retiring or leaving key positions on the job shop floor still outpaces the entrance of the next generation of workers. And while industry continues to lobby provincial and federal governments for support, it’s the collaborative efforts of shops, manufacturers and associations that are transforming the notion of what a career in the skilled trades truly is. Industry associations are hosting apprenticeship and co-op programs to connect employers and students. And more and more job shops are opening their doors for career days to introduce students to the wide variety of career opportunities. It’s at such events that you get to actually meet the people on the shop floor and experience their passion for their careers, which is incredibly infectious. SMT reached out to the industry to track down individuals on the shop floor so that they could bring their passion for their work to these pages.
You won’t find any high-end automation in Craig Campbell’s shop, located behind his house just outside Blenheim, ON. What you will find is highly complex metal parts that bend and curve like pieces of art in a shop full of traditional metal fabrication tools.
Campbell builds and restores rare and vintage automobiles. He got his start in auto body collision repair more than 30 years ago, but it was his fascination with metal fabrication that led him to his career as a fabricator specializing in classic automotive, a trade he says “could take most of your life to learn and understand everything that’s involved in it.”
Within his shop you’ll find a Rotisserie that allows him to rotate a vehicle frame 360 degrees, an old Pullmax metal shaping machine that he makes his own tooling for, and two English Wheels, one dating back to 1918. He has a manual sheet metal bending machine, a compounder and a wall full of hand tools and shelves holding wooden forming bucks.
On the Rotisserie he had a 1967 FIAT Dino Spyder he was rebuilding. Using the old or damaged parts, he can replicate them and fabricate new pieces. “The only part I didn’t have for this one is the battery box, so I had to figure that one out on my own,” says Campbell. “There aren’t many people doing this anymore. But if there’s any part you can’t find, I’ll make it.
“I primarily work with 19-gauge cold rolled steel and 3003 half-hard aluminum,” he says. “It’s half hard because when you change the structure of something it work hardens. But if I anneal it and let it cool, it’s dead soft. I can work it and change the shape and it will get stronger in the end.”
The list of rare and vintage vehicles Campbell has rebuilt is extraordinary. Custom shops and car enthusiasts from all over North America seek him out and keep projects rolling in.
“I get stuff from all over the place,” he says with a smile. “I had a 356 Porsche from California and a 1970 3.5 Mercedes Coupe from Wisconsin in the same year. The Coupe was quite a valuable car. It hit a tree hard and I had to use my frame machine. It’s made of steel and aluminum and you can pull those (bodies) out perfectly.”
Around that time, Campbell also fabricated a new body for a 1955 Jaguar and painted it. Yes, along with all of the traditional tools in his shop, he has a state-of-the-art automotive paint booth that enables him to take a fully fabricated vehicle
to the finished product.
A few years ago, Campbell was recruited to help build a Mercedes Benz prototype based on the automaker’s 190 platform. Pulling out a book about the prototype, he shows pictures of the design differences and what he had to fabricate. “It was built out of aluminum and steel. Doors, dash, hood scoop, trunk lid,” he says. “All had to be fabricated. It’s actually coming back in August for more work to be done.”
Campbell can talk for days about projects and vehicles he’s built. But instead he insists on demonstrating his craft. He picks up a piece of cold rolled steel and his hammer and walks to a tree stump with its centre grooved out. It’s a piece of an ash tree that he planted when he was just a kid. He starts working the metal with his hammer to bring the edges up. He then grabs a leather-covered pillow filled with sand and starts adding contours to the piece, shrinking it and achieving his basic shape. He holds it up and says, “Do you see how the metal has shrunk, moved and looks like it got hit with a bag of walnuts?”
Once he’s satisfied with his handwork, he takes the piece to an English Wheel and starts smoothing out the contour while manually adjusting pressure and moving the part back and forth through the wheel. He says he could use a machine to achieve this result, but handwork is faster for him.
The sheer energy in Campbell’s shop when he demonstrates his skill, watching a plain piece of metal become a shape that could be a part of a fender on a classic truck, is so powerful it even made this journalist want to change careers.
A Future by Design
Born and raised in Wallaceburg, ON, Michelle Theroux has known AarKel Tool and Die Inc. her entire life. Her father worked there in a variety of roles for most of his career. But it wasn’t until Theroux went to high school and, just out of curiosity, took a technical class that she truly fell in love with the technical side of education.
“I absolutely loved it and thought it was the most fun course I had ever taken,” says Theroux. “I continued on through the technical line all the way through high school and after I graduated I went to St. Clair College for a machine shop and technician course.”
She didn’t jump into a career right away. “It was the early 2000s when things crashed in the industry. I moved away from home for a while, but when I moved back there were openings at AarKel. Being the company it is, they’ll provide opportunities to anyone that shows ambition and drive. It’s one of my favourite things about this company.”
Starting out as a junior designer, Theroux worked with senior designers to model small components and add components to plastic injection tools. When asked why she chose designing over being a machinist, she says, “I like the puzzle of putting together a tool. You have to be really creative and it’s really neat to start with these simple blocks, put it all together, go through your reviews, send it out to the floor and see it being built. It’s just a fun process.”
One of her favourite projects was a Two-Shot tool. “That was challenging—to understand how it works and develop my parting line and my actions,” she says. “It really stretched how I viewed tooling and how things come together. But every job presents unique challenges. As much as you might be building the same part on one tool to the next, every tool has unique questions and conundrums that require you to think in a whole new way.”
AarKel is also very proactive in offering training and education to its employees. “As I was working my way up to senior designer, the company was always offering me more training to build on my skills. They’ve invested a lot in me that way,” says Theroux. “They also encourage the designers to go out on the shop floor to see how the operators are working with your data to make the tool. I like talking to the operators and understanding why maybe something I sent out wasn’t working well. I take that feedback and use it when developing my data. It’s those kinds of opportunities that make for a great team and a great workflow through the shop.”
Whether it’s with her three children or students that visit AarKel for a “Come and See” night—when the company sets up booths to demonstrate and educate students on the tool and die trade—Theroux says, “I always encourage them to try everything. Not just technical classes, but everything. You never know what opportunities might come out of it.”
Victor Castela is so passionate about his trade as a licensed tool and die maker that he decided to transition his career and become a technical teacher to share his knowledge and inspire the next generation of possible skilled trades workers. And there’s no doubt he’s put in the work to build an incredibly unique program.
Castela’s Engineering Certificate Program at St. Benedict Catholic Secondary School in Cambridge, ON, is designed to introduce students to not only the science and mathematics aspects of engineering, but also the hands-on, practical skills required to enter the skilled trades world. And this robust program also guides students through the courses required for various engineering career paths and post-secondary education.
“The biggest problem that I found when I made the transition to teaching is that there is always this stigma, especially with parents, that the trades aren’t the best avenue for their child,” says Castela. “I’m trying to teach or educate parents that there is nothing wrong with becoming a tradesperson, and that there are some very unique and niche careers. I talk about my personal journey and when I was a travelling machinist on a professional road racing team.”
Castela points out that to excel in the trades one must be quick on their feet, a good decision maker and have book smarts. Many students think university is the correct path, but academically it might not make sense straight out of high school.
“If a student chooses the trades, he or she could become an apprentice, get their papers, become a licensed machinist and get hired,” Castela says. “And if they still want to pursue a post-secondary career, the company will often pay for it. It happens all the time.
“My job, along with teaching, is educating students and parents about the opportunities in the manufacturing umbrella,” he says. “And I found that by twisting the term ‘manufacturing’ and adding the word ‘engineering,’ it opened up channels where students become interested. All of a sudden I have kids that would have never applied to my program, applying.”
One of the biggest challenges colleges and universities are having with new students is that while they may have the theory, many have next to no hands-on experience. That’s where Castela comes in. His students learn how to read blueprints, understand the interpretation of what they will be machining and the process needed for what they’re going to fabricate.
And his shop (classroom) is fully equipped for all the hands-on experience they need. He has five 3D printers and four CNC machines—and with funding from the province and the Canadian Tooling and Machining Association (CTMA), he’s ordering five new lathes. “I could actually run a business out of my class,” he says.
His secret to inspiring students is hooking them with cool projects. “I run an electrical car club where the kids design and fabricate a race car from scratch. And they get to race them against other institutions,” says Castela.
“My program is really picking up momentum. I have companies recruiting my students right out of grade 12. I also teach the first year of tool and die for precision machining through the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship program. It allows students to earn their first year of apprenticeship at the high school level. Students can then write an equivalence exam at a community college and be exempt from first-year theory—and their hours count toward their apprenticeship.”
Castela adds, “Manufacturing is always changing and is the edge of technology. I’m always thinking about what I’m teaching my students to keep pace with industry. My goal is to produce the best trades men and women out of my shop.”
For Anthony Thompson, his career in the trades has very much been a ‘go with the flow’ journey. He always knew working with his hands was something he was good at. But while attending college for what he says was something slightly different, a welding opportunity came up at a friend’s shop and he was hired as a summer apprentice.
That apprenticeship turned into a full-time job as a fully certified welder. “I was there for about three years. And then I went back to college for general machining, just to broaden my horizon a bit,” says Thompson.
It was during his time at Conestoga College when he discovered Kitchener, ON’s Answer Precision Technologies Inc., where he’s now assistant manager of the CNC department.
“I was hired as a Level Two general machinist, but because I was a certified welder, I started off in the welding department,” he says. “[Since then] I’ve been across the entire board here except for the design department. For the first couple of years I was in the welding department. And then they trained me for a supervisor position for the afternoon shift. I worked as a toolmaker for about a year, and then they needed a CNC operator. So they pulled me into CNC and I ran three and five axis machines for a few years.”
Now as the assistant manager of the department, Thompson handles the scheduling of the machines, maintenance, tooling and overseeing the programming aspects. “I do a lot of design modifications on the fly as well,” he says. “CNC is by far my favourite department because I get to touch base with every other department. I get the option to square up my own blocks at times—so being a toolmaker. There are a lot of different operations and processes where we need to assemble fixtures on the machine to machine it complete. And when you get aspects of the design portion where it’s not working or we can make it easier, we’ll modify on the fly. It’s pretty cool to see some of the movements the machine does. You take a raw block and it turns into something really nice. I take a lot of pride in the products I make.”
He continues, “A lot of my advancement has been pretty quick here. The automotive industry is always changing and we get to see that shift. Every day you sit in and drive a car. Getting into this industry, you get to see beyond just driving the car. You see how it’s built, how it’s designed and all the moving features. We’re also getting into a lot of automation aspects and we’re becoming very diverse. It’s really cool.”
In the future, Thompson hopes to take over the full department and get more into the design aspects of his work, a goal that he says he’s already close to achieving. SMT