When it comes to the economy, everyone may be fretting about unknowns, yet manufacturing still is making headlines--this week on TIME magazine’s cover. The article tells a familiar story: Manufacturing is back, but don’t expect the industry to hire people en masse. Automation has reduced the number of people necessary to make a widget, and the people who remain must be technically savvy and think on their feet. In the middle of the article, the magazine spread shows a battery plant, void of human life save for one person with an iPad, overseeing the automation.
I wish the authors had spoken with our columnist Dick Kallage of KDC & Associates; or Rajan Suri of the Center for Quick Response Manufacturing; Gary Conner, of Lean Enterprise Training (who has an article coming up in the May issue of The FABRICATOR). If they had spoken with any one of them, they would have discovered that the GE plant isn’t indicative of most U.S. manufacturers--that is, small companies.
Yes, the article goes into 3-D printing technology, but it isn’t widespread or practical for most piece parts, at least not now. The small fabricator and contract manufacturer certainly uses lasers and other flashy technologies, but not all fabrication can occur in a clean room. And when you grind or hit sheet metal with a turret press, it can get a bit noisy.
The article describes the modern manufacturing worker is a manager of an automated line, standing by a laptop with a clipboard. That happens sometimes, of course, but few high-mix, low-volume job shops (again, which make up the majority of manufacturers out there) don’t run plant-wide automation. Someone still needs to drive a fork truck or at least push a cart to get parts from one place to another.
From a personnel perspective, it’s nice to think of manufacturing as one of two extremes: the manual, artisan shop that employs highly skilled people who have run this press brake, that plate roll, or this arc welder for decades. They’re technological difficult-to-replace gurus who have gained a feel of fabrication. The other extreme is what the TIME article showed: An entirely automated plant with a few highly trained and, again, difficult-to-replace technicians who run everything.
The reality today is that we have a balance between these two extremes. Modern machines have become simpler to set up and run, so entry-level operators can start producing parts sooner. Setup has become streamlined, but not eliminated. This leaves a highly experienced supervisor (analagous to the person overseeing an automated line in the TIME article) and a group of machine operators.
These operators push buttons on the machine, move parts, check for quality, and monitor part flow. Problem is, a fabricator can have someone come in and just push buttons. And if that’s all that person does, let’s be honest: he or she is easily replaceable.
Some crafts--TIG welding, for instance--remain an art. A person can make a good career as that kind of artist, one that can lay a beautiful bead like no other. But areas like press brake operation (especially when you take automatic crowning and bend angle compensation into account) are becoming more like a science--not totally, but more so than they were.
To climb the career ladder now requires people to communicate, develop ideas, and constructively question the status quo. It’s not about whether a person can calculate a staged bending setup. Some new press brakes have software that takes care of that. But a person who develops new and better ways of making a part--well, those people are and will remain hard to replace. This in turn drives their wages skyward.
New technology, an absolute (and welcome) necessity in modern fabrication, also has lowered the bar for entry-level employees. We can’t pine for the old days, of course. A fabricator will find it difficult if not impossible to compete with old technology; lead-time and quality demands are just too stringent. The challenge now is to foster career paths, not just offer jobs for button-pushers.