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Sana Kazilbash

Innovation

Davis Tech Trains Blind Students in CNC Machining

Using tools like Autodesk Fusion 360, the CNC Enhanced course is facilitating inclusion in manufacturing

Published: Wednesday, September 15, 2021 - 12:01

Davis Technical College, a community college in Utah, is offering the United State’s first-ever CNC machining training course for blind students. The institute’s pilot course, CNC Enhanced, was completed in fall 2020 by three visually impaired students—who proved so successful that they are now joining Davis Tech’s traditional CNC machining program.

The inspiration for CNC Enhanced was born when Davis Tech’s president, Darin Brush, and faculty lead, Troy Winchester, visited a shop in Seattle that had employed a blind machinist. Although the machinist was working in a protected environment where he was only allowed to carry out specific tasks, Brush and Winchester were intrigued, and returned from the trip with a plan to build out their own CNC machining program for the blind.

In conjunction with the Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired (DSBVI), Davis Tech CNC machining instructors Geoffrey Vincent and Matt Winslow developed the CNC Enhanced course—which they further molded as they gained experience working with their first batch of blind students.

“Originally, the CNC Enhanced training plan was specifically for the blind and vision-impaired,” explains Vincent, whose career spans firearms manufacturing and SpaceX projects. “We would take them through the A to Z of manufacturing, all the way up to aerospace machining and programming, depending on where their vision was. As capable, dedicated, and hardworking as they are, they blew all our expectations out of the water. Things that we thought would take weeks to learn, they were doing in days or hours.”

CNC Enhanced’s first three students: Annie, Landon, and Marley.
CNC Enhanced’s first three students: Annie, Landon, and Marley. (Image courtesy of Davis Tech.)

The instructors soon found themselves scrambling to rethink their approach, as the curriculum they had planned for six weeks was mastered by the students within three days.

“The one thing we learned really fast is that they are blind living in a visual world, and they’ve already come up with ways to compensate for their lack of vision,” says Vincent. “The main program wouldn’t exist where it’s at right now without the blind students and their training plan.”

Davis Tech went on to integrate the CNC Enhanced course with their CNC machining program, creating an environment inclusive for all learners. The program, which is open to qualified high-school and adult students, mimics real-world settings in machine shops through the use of industry-standard tools, equipment, and procedures. The curriculum includes blueprint reading, sketching, part design, CNC operation, and CNC programming, along with training in lathe, mill, and drill press. Students additionally gain experience in using precision measuring tools and mechanical inspection methods to produce parts with close tolerances.

The new curriculum veers away from manual machining, choosing instead to go full CAD/CAM. Students are trained extensively on Autodesk Fusion 360, whose technology helps participants use complex machines from design to manufacturing—all within one platform.

blind student designing with Fusion 360
Landon designs a part using Fusion 360. (Image courtesy of Davis Tech.)

“The ability to have it fluid in one program makes it easy for us, because we can focus on the curriculum without students having to learn a new program over and over again,” says Vincent. “The flexibility of having everything in one package and not having to learn three or four different systems or applications is huge, especially for the blind and visually impaired. They need that repetition. Bouncing over to other programs stunts their growth in a dramatic way.”

The course is built around the standard operating procedure for the industry, which features five elements: blueprint reading, design, programming, manufacturing, and inspection. During the first couple of weeks, students learn Fusion 360 basics and design parts. As the training program ramps up, so does the complexity of parts, blueprints, and inspections.

“We take it from really simple, to molds and aerospace parts toward the end of the course,” says Vincent. “We want to expose them to everything.”

Marley and Landon use Fusion 360.
Marley and Landon use Fusion 360. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

According to Vincent, many students fly through Fusion 360 because of having learned the program in high school.

“It’s one of the most powerful software programs on the market,” declares Vincent. “You couldn’t find a more supportive program. They’re continually adding massive new features every four to six weeks, which we integrate into our curriculum.”

Another factor is the cloud-based nature of the platform, which allows students to continue working on custom projects in their free time.

“They’ll goof around with Fusion 360 at home, and then come into class like, ‘Look at this thing I did,’” said Vincent. “Then we say, ‘Cool, let’s machine it.’ Trying to keep that excitement going is huge for students in general, but it’s especially huge for the blind students because every little thing they could do is a massive win for them.”

Fusion 360 additionally permits the changing of color schemes, which can be great help for those with vision problems. Out of the total population that is visually impaired, most of them are partially sighted and only around 10 percent are fully blind.

“There’s a wide range between legally blind and pitch-black blind,” explains Vincent. “Some people can see white on black, or black on white, or white on blue, and so on.”

Autodesk is further providing support through the addition of Alt codes to upcoming versions of their software, as per Davis Tech’s recommendations. Alt codes are widely used by the blind for ease in programming.

One of the visually impaired students, Marley, is 98-percent blind. She can see six inches out of her peripheral, so she uses touch screens and Windows Magnifier for zooming in on blueprints. Because reading print is difficult, she uses the NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) screen reader—which has also been loaded onto the CNC machines. The screen reader simply converts the text elements to audio, allowing Marley to understand what is happening on-screen. A significantly large touchscreen monitor further mimics the main control of CNC machines. The computer-based nature of Davis Tech’s CNC Machining course proves useful for these applications.

When it comes to machine accessibility, Davis Tech executes the program using Okuma machine tools, whose OSP controls and open architecture enable software overlays. A GENOS M560-V provides further support through software and machine customizations.

Other technological advancements that make CNC machining possible for the blind include braille tablets, which convert on-screen text to braille.

A closeup of the insideONE tactile braille tablet in operation.
A closeup of the insideONE tactile braille tablet in operation. (Image courtesy of insideONE.)

The tablets go the extra mile by interpreting numbers, performing calculations, and taking pictures. They can also automatically convert on-screen content to the required color scheme.

“We can literally plug our measuring equipment [such as calipers and micrometers] into their tablet, and it will read out to them in real time,” explains Vincent. “Each tablet has a keyboard with all the braille dots on it, and it’s constantly shifting. As soon as they touch it, it shifts to the next thing. It’s the craziest thing ever.”

Contrary to expectations, parts created by blind students follow strict quality standards.

“Inspection is probably one of the easier things for them to do,” says Vincent. “We have SPC output on everything. What that means is, they push a button after they measure, and it sends that data somewhere else. It’s on every computer, and it goes to Excel. Then they can plug their tablets directly into the measuring equipment. I would say inspection is even easier for them because they’re so used to doing things with their hands. They’re just naturals at it. It’s not a problem for them to hold things in weird ways. We had them inspecting with everything from calipers all the way up to coordinate-measuring machines (CMMs), and ran into zero issues along the way.”

An eye-catching Fusion 360 render of a high-tolerance part that was programmed, machined, and inspected by Landon. Every feature on the part has a tolerance of ±0.0005".
An eye-catching Fusion 360 render of a high-tolerance part that was programmed, machined, and inspected by Landon. Every feature on the part has a tolerance of ±0.0005". (Image courtesy of Davis Tech.)

The students would start by learning the first noise of everything. A series of clicks later, they would have the entire keyboard memorized.

“It’s mind-boggling to watch,” says Vincent. “In fact, due to their heightened nonvisual senses, blind people may have an advantage when a part is inside the CNC machine. When it comes to the actual machine, a lot of it involves listening to what the tool is doing to the material at that point. You can’t really see what your part’s doing, but you can absolutely hear it—and these blind students excel at that. What sounds good to me or anyone else, they’re like, ‘I don’t know. It sounds a little chattery.’ And you’re like, ‘Does it?’ You’re pushing your ear up against the glass, saying ‘I guess.’ If you’re blind, your other senses are stronger, so they can definitely hear way better than we do. We’d have students on the other side of the shop, machining really terribly, and Marley would be like, ‘It’s about 50 feet that way.’”

Apart from being trained to listen for certain noises, the blind have proven to be excellent at following standard operating procedures.

“If we thought something was dangerous, we would just create a standard operating procedure that kept them safe,” says Vincent. “A lot of our CNCs don’t even work without the door all the way closed. And so, that safety aspect was an easy one. With the bandsaw, for instance, we would say, ‘While it’s running, just don’t touch the machine until you hear it turn off, because it has an auto-off.’ Simple things like that just mitigated all the risk, essentially.”

In this kind of environment, whenever the students wanted to try something, the instructors would foster their interests rather than imposing restrictions. During the engineering.com interview, Vincent quipped that this may partly have stemmed from their own inexperience in working with blind students.

“Before this program, Matt and I had zero exposure to the blind community in general,” says Vincent. “We had gone way overboard in our preparation for the students. They got here and were borderline making fun of us for all the stuff that we had. We didn’t have to build a whole crazy, custom environment with new computers and super-expensive software. They were like, ‘You guys are so cute. You have no idea what you’re doing.’

“Sometimes the best solutions are the easiest solutions,” Vincent continues. “We were coming from a place of ignorance, somewhat, because we had no idea what these students were capable of. Marley would come to the shop and know what everything sounds like. She would hang her cane up and walk around the entire shop freely with no issues. We learned that preconceived notions can be unintentionally harmful to others. It’s much better just to give someone a chance and see if it works. It’s not as complicated as you may think.”

Davis Tech had the support of numerous industrial partners, such as Hartwig, when putting together CNC Enhanced.

“Everyone wanted to see if it would work out,” says Vincent. “Once it did, it was like a massive pat on everyone’s backs—because we all had a hand in it.”

According to Vincent, it is prevalent in industry for people to remain in their comfort zone and be averse to change. Davis Tech is looking to rejuvenate the industry by exposing companies to the latest ideas and technologies, with adaptability and flexibility being key. In the case of CNC Enhanced, the goal is inclusion—and not just for the blind.

“The way we look at it, the blind and visually impaired are our first stepping stone in many stepping stones to inclusion,” says Vincent. “If blind people can do aerospace-level machining, programming, and inspection, why can’t anyone else with other disabilities do that? We just hired a highly autistic student as a part-time instructor here, because we liked his work ethic and attitude. In some cases, that’s all you need.

“For us, being able to take a different stance on inclusion has made our lives easier in some ways,” says Vincent. “Rather than looking for a specific person, we give people a chance—and if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t, but you don’t know until you really try. We want everyone to come try. Just because you have a disability, don’t think that’s going to stop you.”

Vincent describes his experience with the blind students as “life-changing.”

“Everyone said 2020 was the worst, but we had a blast,” recalls Vincent. “Working with these students was the highlight of my year, for sure. Seeing their excitement—not to mention the friendships that we gained. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It’s just changed a lot of how I personally approach things. The process was very rewarding for me and everyone involved. I don’t get emotional, so this is me tearing up.”

Although Vincent doesn’t foresee CNC Enhanced being utilized frequently due to the course having been integrated into the traditional program, the program is still available if it’s needed in the future.

“There are going to be issues here and there, but we don’t have solutions because we don’t know what the problems are yet,” he says. “That keeps it fun. Keeps you on your toes.”

The benefit of integrating CNC Enhanced into the main program is that it prepares blind students for the real-world environment, where they won’t be working in a separate, safe space of their own.

“Their goal has been normalcy most of their lives, and they just want to be like everyone else,” explains Vincent. “They don’t want to be treated different or special.”

Landon loads a part into the CNC machine.
Landon loads a part into the CNC machine. (Image courtesy of Davis Tech.)

According to Vincent, Utah has about 51,000 work-eligible blind people who are not typically provided with many opportunities. The state is flush with aerospace, medical, and military companies, all of which are actively hiring for manufacturing roles.

“In Utah, people are looking for machinists like crazy,” says Vincent. “The demand is absolutely outrageous. We’ve been using that to our advantage a little bit, like, ‘Hey, we have blind students. Wink wink, nudge nudge.’”

Once a company visits Davis Tech and interacts with the blind students, they realize how proficient they are.

“For us, the challenge has been getting people in front of the students during Covid,” says Vincent. “We plan on doing a huge open house in October so they can interact with everybody and break that barrier. We’ve already got three or four companies sort of fighting for the blind kids. I can’t wait to see how that works out.”

In conversation with Marley

Although Vincent had originally expected the visually impaired students to be at different levels of capability, he quickly found all three of them to surpass his expectations. Not only did they excel at CNC machining, they had other dynamic interests as well.

“Landon has always had a goal of working for SpaceX,” says Vincent. “He may be legally blind, but he’s on an outdoor BMX team. He just can’t do it at night because he can’t see the ground at night. Going back to limitations—all three go skiing, listening to callouts. They’ve figured this stuff out.”

Engineering.com had the opportunity to chat with a shy, sweet Marley about her passions.

“I’m 20 years old and barely graduated high school,” says Marley. “I’ve been interested in manufacturing since I was really little. I always liked to make stuff. I went into robotics in high school, but quickly figured out that wasn’t my jam—and then I found that CNC was really stinking cool. It’s really satisfying to watch something you’ve made come to fruition. Manufacturing is an industry where you’re always going to be learning something new, while not straying too far from the old.

“My vision impairment is a little weird. I have a very limited field of view. I believe that my current vision acuity is 20/700 in my better eye. So, what you would see at 700 feet, I would at 20. I have no colors. I have a hard time tracking movement, and it’s very difficult to see things that aren’t high contrast. I do digital art sometimes, so I love hex code values.”

Marley describes being “over the moon” when she first found out about the CNC Enhanced program.

“My experience there was overwhelmingly positive,” she says. “They didn’t treat us like we were children; they treated us more like we were equals. I thought there were going to be more restrictions and less of a direction for us to go, but they had it down to a science, and it was surprising to me that they had this so figured out.” (Contrary to Vincent’s self-deprecating humor about having no idea what they were doing.)

Marley inspects a part using a caliper.
Marley inspects a part using a caliper. (Image courtesy of Davis Tech.)

Once Marley becomes comfortable in industry after getting some more classes under her belt, one of her ambitions includes working as an instructor at Davis Tech.

“I was of the impression that if I got a job working at Davis Tech, I would be working with the other blind students,” says Marley. “I think it would be very important to teach the next generation of blind machinists the same lessons that I was taught. And I think that being in the same position as them, I would be able to provide more insight to the other instructor staff as to how to help the students succeed.”

When asked if she had suggestions for making machining more inclusive, Marley said: “A big one is that companies can start Alt-texting their software. Screen-reading software plays a lot with reading the Alt text on digital elements. A lot of companies, I’ve noticed, simply don’t do that because they think their customers can just read what’s on the big colored boxes. A lot of us can’t.”

I asked Marley about her feelings upon completion of the CNC Enhanced course.

“It felt like I had the world in my hands. It was a feeling of empowerment that I had never felt before. I felt like I knew something for the first time in my life that I could actually use in my career.”

As for her career aspirations: “I want to work somewhere that treats me right, and doesn’t make the same six parts for the rest of my life—so I always have something new to learn.”

To conclude the interview, I asked Marley if she had any words of wisdom for our engineering audience.

“Don’t be afraid to mess up, because it’s going to happen,” she advises. “It just depends on if you respond to the failure by running away, or by learning from it.”

First published Aug. 16, 2021, on engineering.com

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About The Author

Sana Kazilbash’s picture

Sana Kazilbash

Sana Kazilbash is an editor at engineering.com, and has a chemical engineering background with experience in petroleum, pharmaceutical and software development companies. Passionate about food and travel, Sana enjoys water-based activities such as standup paddleboarding.