John McPhee is a hero of mine. As one of the best nonfiction writers out there, the Princeton professor and contributor to The New Yorker magazine can turn any subject into a pleasurable read. He’s written about geology, the merchant marines, physics—heck, even an entire book on oranges. Believe it or not, they’re all as engaging as a crime thriller. But more impressive to me is the skill behind his craft. McPhee is a quiet man with a gentle voice, and I’ve got a hunch it helps when interviewing sources. He just sits, makes the source as comfortable as possible, and takes notes periodically, really listening for the most interesting points. He also asks sources the same question several times, phrased differently, to elicit alternative responses, which reveal those all-important nuances that make writing interesting. And he still organizes all of his notes on those old-fashioned index cards.
I have to wonder if McPhee would have turned out to be such an amazing writer if he were born today, in an age of digital voice recorders and laptops. I’m grateful for the John McPhees of the world, those who started their careers before technology changed everything. They grew up learning the fundamentals, with no grammar- or spell-check to help them.
Jerry Ward likely thinks the same thing about the fundamentals, just for a different skill set. The vice president of Metcam, a metal fabricator north of Atlanta, remembers the days of absolutely needing to know the intricacies of flat layout, bend angles, and all the other metal fabrication fundamentals.
“Back then people had to have that knowledge of layout, how parts bend, how to set up the machine so it could produce an accurate part,” Ward said. “The technology makes it easier now, and you don’t have people in that situation.”
The skilled-labor issue is a paradox. Modern machines have made learning the ropes easier than ever. An operator can start making good parts without years of training. But this also means that many lack that all-important fundamental knowledge base. Some do, including the supervisors, department leads, or setup people who can look at a program that was automatically generated and tweak it so it’s even better.
But not everybody has that fundamental knowledge, and it’s this knowledge that can help everyone learn more. For instance, cross training has never been more important. A flexible shop can move workers around the floor to help unclog the bottleneck—be it in cutting, bending, hardware insertion, and so on. And if a shop has a multi-process cell—a punching machine next to a brake next to hardware insertion, for instance— the need for cross training is obvious.
The shop will always have its gurus, those with intimate knowledge of specific processes, but even those gurus might not spend their entire day in one department. Parts need to get out the door, and it can’t happen quickly if certain people are just standing around, waiting for parts. They need to be able to help unclog those bottlenecks, wherever they may be.
That’s why several certificates posted on Metcam’s shop floor mean so much. They show that certain employees have passed the Precision Sheet Metal Operator exam from the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association. As an added incentive, Metcam even awarded a $500 check to those who passed the exam. That check alone shows how important employee knowledge is to the company.
If operators pass this standardized test, it proves they know the basics of various fabrication operations, which in turn helps them to identify waste and increase efficiency. With this knowledge, these workers also provide more value to their employers and increase their chances of climbing the career ladder.
In a sense, the test proves operators know the grammar of metal fabrication. With that knowledge, they can use modern, automated equipment not as a crutch to compensate for a lack of skill, but as an empowerment tool that allows them to produce components better, faster, and smarter.
To learn more about FMA’s Precision Sheet Metal Operator certification program, click here.