We are the Drivers of Change

If we move from a builder nation to a buyer nation, we will no longer control our own destiny.

Most people get into this industry by the normal means of taking a job and spending a lifetime learning and working their way through it. Then there are some of us who are born into the industry. 

From my earliest days, the sounds of the shop floor were a concerto to my ears—a grinding wheel taking a heavy cut or chips as thick as toenails coming off a bar and slapping against the machine. In those early days, the air in the shop was thicker with cigarette smoke than it was with smoke coming off the machines. The senses were bombarded all day long; even the absence of sound at the end of the day brings back memories. And if that wasn’t enough, when we got home, discussions around the kitchen table were about work and the challenges we faced. Growing up in this atmosphere has a way of shaping how we look at the industry and change.

I had the privilege of watching my father and grandfather deal with the changes that came their way. Now as the old guy in the corner office, I look back on how they handled changes and hope I learned well. Change is something that you either embrace or it runs you over and then leaves you behind.

Forty years ago, carbide tooling on automatics was more of an exception. Today, in more and more cases, carbide or even better cutting materials have become the standard. The application of these better cutting materials is being driven by a number of factors:

Higher production demands – We are all pushed to do more, faster, with less. This in itself is the essence of improvement. Jobs are won by those who can make more for less. If we don’t push ourselves, we will be left on the outside looking in.

Tighter tolerance demands – During the years that I’ve been doing this work, tolerances and finishes have continued to get tighter. Those easy jobs, if still being made, are being made in some third-world country or are being made on a hobby machine in someone’s garage.

Tougher to machine materials – Aerospace parts manufacturing, for example, requires materials able to handle both higher stress and higher temperatures. Even the best of the high speed steels won’t touch this stuff. Face it, even brass has gotten tougher with the new lead-free options. It’s not your grandfather’s brass any more.

Lights-out manufacturing – How true is the joke that you need one operator and a dog to run the entire shop? The operator needs to be there to reload the machines and the dog to make sure he doesn’t touch anything else. As we move toward more unattended machining, tools that hold up become paramount.

Lack of skilled operators – This, I believe, is the largest driving force for the push toward longer running tools and push-button machines. If the tool can stay in the machine longer and no one has to adjust or tweak it, everyone’s happy. Being able to “plug and play” a fresh insert and hit the start button sounds much easier than trying to center the tools each time the tool is resharpened.

Carbide tooling may be a help, but we need to make changes when it comes to skilled operators. Let’s face it, society has painted manufacturing with a dirt-colored paint. Some of this was our own doing, or those who came before us. Shops were dark and dirty. Even now, when shops are clean, well lit, cool in the summer and comfortable in the winter, we are faced with an uphill road to promote working in our industries to those entering the workforce. Students and their parents, for years, have sold the idea of higher education, but not technical education. High school counselors are evaluated on how many students they get to go on to higher education and not by those who head into a trade.

As Manufacturing Day comes again this month, it’s time to be proactive. Get the students, their parents, the teachers, counselors and school administrators into your plant. Show them that the shop environment has changed, and the machines are amazing because of what they can do. As fancy as the machines have gotten, today’s young people should love to get their hands on them. 

Manufacturing has changed and will continue to change. We can either grab it and do our part to keep it a life blood of our country, or we can let the lights go out. But keep in mind, if we move from a builder nation to a buyer nation, we will no longer control our own destiny.