Last week the federal government released a report saying exports grew for the third straight month. Despite the fact that new orders in November declined slightly, year over year new orders increased 12.3 percent from 2009 to 2010. Sure, the growth is coming off of some unprecedented lows, but the growth is significant all the same. Overall, manufacturing has been growing three times faster than the rest of the economy.
What a difference a financial crisis makes. Manufacturing is cool again.
Well, it’s not that cool, actually. Manufacturing doesn’t employ the masses like it once did, so even if manufacturing continues to grow, it’s not likely to reduce the unemployment rate quickly. Though I think the reasons for it are a tad misunderstood.
People tend to have two views of manufacturing, and neither of them portray a very attractive career choice. Many think that manufacturing work is either dark and dirty, or so automated that a worker’s job is continuously on the verge of obsolescence.
The truth is something different. Small job shops make up the majority of U.S. manufacturing, and in recent years improvement strategies such as lean manufacturing and Eliyahu Goldratt’s theory of constraints have changed the nature of production. Shops managers have found that reducing batch sizes helps make part flow more efficient and throughput greater. Instead of setting up for two hours and letting a machine run for six, a person may set up a machine for an hour--or on modern machine tools, just several minutes--run a short job, then set up again for another short job. Material from various orders then flows through the shop--10 of this, 40 of that, 15 of this--which is much better than lumbering along with huge batch sizes that, ultimately, delay other orders and reduces overall throughput. Meanwhile, efficiencies gained in material movement outweigh any increased machine idle time from multiple setups.
Besides, so many customers these days limit the number of parts they order anyhow. High-volume orders are harder to come by these days.
This has driven machine makers to make setup easier and faster. True, some technologies eliminate secondary operations and, hence, the related setups: specialized tools in the turret punch press that eliminate secondary bending and hardware insertion operations, for instance. But such technologies don’t change the fact that batch sizes are getting smaller. Setup time per job is a fraction of what it once was--but there are more setups.
More setups mean more workers spend more time by machines, tweaking this and altering that to get them ready for a short run. Workers don’t stand idle, look at a row of robots and worry about job security, nor do they just push a button and watch automation take over for the rest of their shift. Automation may increase quality and make cycle time more predictable. But automation can’t program itself.
Manufacturing workers keep busy by setting up jobs and ensuring material flows through the plant to meet or beat due dates. Lead-times have been shortened from months to weeks and days. Some are managing material so efficiently that they’re attaining on-time delivery rates well above 90 percent.
Manufacturing workers continually think of new ways to make setups, material flow, and overall quality better and faster. The very fact setups have become so crucial may be one root cause behind this industry’s skilled labor crisis. Metal fabrication needs more people who know how to set up--and not just operate--advanced machinery. Most machines don’t set up themselves. A welding gun can’t weld without an operator, and even a robotic welding cell can’t be efficient without a skilled programmer who knows a thing or two about joining metal.
It may be true that manufacturers do more with fewer unskilled workers. But to get the job done, skilled personnel must ensure they meet or beat customer expectations. True, automated machines don't require dedicated setup people. But it’s not as if a shop can employ one skilled person to manage hundreds of machines, especially if small batch sizes for a multitude of orders require those machines to be set up more often. More setups and shorter runs require more skilled people.
As manufacturers ramp up from the recession, skilled people are busier than ever--and more of them are needed.