Regional SkillsUSA Contests in North Dakota & Other States Heat Up on Way to National Championships

Justin Paulson still is the reigning North Dakota and national champion in Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) Turning. But with 20 state competitions scheduled in April alone, the race for students to follow in his footsteps is heating up. First, Paulson’s state title in North Dakota is up for grabs from April 14th to April 16th. More than 300,000 students from the 54 state and territorial associations of SkillsUSA are competing in 94 categories for a place in the finals in Kansas City, MO, on June 27th.

At the national championship almost 6,000 high school, technical, and college students will showcase their skills in more than 100 contests. Of particular interest to the manufacturing community are the CNC Turning, CNC Milling, and Precision Machining competitions, which are sponsored by Haas Automation, Inc., Oxnard, CA, and the National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS), Fairfax, VA. 

At last year’s National SkillsUSA Championships, Justin Paulson, a then star machining student at North Dakota State College of Science (NDSCS), Wahpeton, ND, won a Gold Medal and a $2,000 First Prize in Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) Turning. Paulson, now enrolled in the Manufacturing Engineering program at North Dakota State University, beat out rivals from all over the U.S. Contestants used 36 Haas control simulators, a Haas TM-1P Toolroom Mill, and a Haas TL-1 Toolroom Lathe equipped with tools from Sandvik Coromant, Fair Lawn, NJ.

“More Hands-On”

“Why did you choose manufacturing?” we asked Paulson. “I’ve liked working with my hands since childhood,” he replied. “I started in physics at California Polytechnic, but wanted something more hands-on so I came home to North Dakota and enrolled at NDSCS.”

Lincoln Thompson, Assistant Professor of Precision Machining Technology is Paulson’s teacher. “We really stress good core fundamentals,” he says. “Our students get lots of hands-on learning.” Roughly 25 students started Thompson’s two-year machining course. Paulson spent his first year learning how machine tools cut metal as he studied blueprint reading, technical math, technical communication, computer basics, and more.

Every day for four hours, Paulson worked with Bridgeport vertical milling machines and Clausing manual lathes, as well as surface grinders, saws, and all types of measuring tools in the NDSCS lab. In his second semester, he transitioned into Haas Toolroom lathes and mills. He also apprenticed part-time for a local machine shop, later moving to a weekend shift.

At the end of his first year, Paulson earned a certificate and some of his classmates entered the work force right away. Oil and agriculture are booming in North Dakota right now such that there are twelve jobs for every machining student at NDSCS.

As a second-year student, Paulson focused on learning G Code and CNC machining. He worked with Haas Toolroom Machines which eased the transition to fully automated Haas CNC machine tools. All students worked hard on technical communications, learning correct terminology and how to get their point across verbally and in writing.

On to Kansas City

The state SkillsUSA competition in North Dakota is a shortened version of the national. After completing a written exam, competitors went through all the necessary steps to make parts on the CNC lathe and CNC mill. Since Paulson was North Dakota’s best in CNC turning, he went to the nationals in Kansas City.

“I did not coach Justin specifically for the SkillsUSA competition,” Thompson says. “In the classroom, we focus on training the best possible machinists by having them make many parts and do lots of programming. The national competition is quite intense, so students should be able to work well under pressure.”

“There was little in the national competition that I hadn’t done before,” Paulson states. “The judges gave us a calculator and Reference Guide with certain equations we needed. We got a blueprint—the same part for every competitor—and we read it, did calculations, and typed in G Code from scratch on the machine control.

“We handed our G Code to the judges who made sure it would run properly,” Paulson continues. “Then the judges ran the part and I did not see my part again until it was on the display table. They gave us some questions we had to figure out on our own—and some aspects of the part were new to me—but experience helped me find answers.”

Excellent teaching delivers excellent results. Lincoln Thompson worked as a tool and die maker for 22 years before he came to NDSCS—and he’s always looking for ways to improve the program.

“We’re transitioning into the Haas Toolroom machines,” he says, “not doing as much manual machining anymore. This generation picks up computer technology quicker than the hands-on, but we still believe there’s value in learning how metal cuts before we go into programming.”

Thompson is also working on accreditation from the National Institute of Metalworking Skills. Once the NIMS program is in place, graduating students will have their skills measured and tested according to recognized national standards. NIMS will then issue a credential that tells prospective employers just what the student can do.