Of all the people you knew back in high school, there were many who had planned out their career paths. Some went on to be doctors, lawyers, teachers and so on. Some will have started their own business, perhaps online businesses.
But let’s ask a question.
How many started their own manufacturing company?
It is easier than ever to get something manufactured, we live in a can-do time, or rather someone can do. In a world of Shark Tank entrepreneurs, your average Joe believes that he can come up with a new billion-dollar product. They’ve chosen a name, packaging, they’ve bought a domain name. They have even planned out how they’ll spend their money. Getting it made? Well, they’ll think about that later.
Because ‘manufacturing is easy, right?
Yes, it is easier than ever but that does not mean that it’s easy. Let’s be clear from the offset; manufacturing is not easy and it certainly isn’t glamorous. Elon Musk has brought some seemingly glamorous occasions to the news. The truth is that manufacturing a new product can be a grind. Materials and designs are becoming more complex and in some cases more difficult to produce.
Real power is the People, the operators.
One thing makes everything worthwhile are the people doing the day to day manufacturing in various factories. These people are the real superheroes, the backbone of industry and our nation.
Every operator, machinist, engineer has the following qualities
- They are utterly dedicated to their work
- Has absolute attention to detail
- They’ll get things done no matter the pressure.
Ok, so why is manufacturing still hard?
Any product you use or see will have many constituent parts. Sometimes 1000s of parts will go into production the final product. For instance, the space shuttle has over 2.5million parts. A truly mind-blowing number and each one has to be produced to the highest precision and tolerances possible.
A product can contain everything from machined steel parts to PCBs mounted inside mechanical enclosures, they might be servo motors inside other moving parts, etc. And each one of these parts could be getting manufactured in hundreds of different factories. Imagine how difficult it could be to get them all to work together perfectly. Just one small mistake in manufacturing a tiny part could impact on the entire mechanism.
Each year we see new technologies and new demands are placed on the manufacturer to perfect the process to meet these new demands during the process itself. That is why it’s still hard.
It gets worse
Now that the process has been perfected and the final product meets the required specifications. You need to go into production. Parts have to be sourced from many external sources and each one has to meet its own internal design constraints and tolerances.
Blocks of steel and aluminum have to be sourced and take time to order. Machining or metal supply margins are not that high so there’s little reason to keep around large amounts of raw materials.
There is no glamor in manufacturing
We can all blame Elon Musk because he is the poster boy of the 21st-century can-do spirit. His ambitions have allowed astounding changes to come about, though certainly not the first to have a mass-produced electric car he has certainly popularized it. Every major manufacture has now gone into electric and will most likely dedicate its entire production to electric cars within the next 20 years.
The man has even launched one of his cars into space and it’s currently orbiting the Sun just outside of Mar’s orbit. Want to find out where it is right now, click here.
Such feats have attracted the media’s attention and suddenly everyone thinks that all manufacturing is like that, full of glamorous launch parties.
The fact is that though nothing can take away from its importance, manufacturing is not at all glamorous.
Factories are dirty
Manufacturing anything it creates dust, grease, raw material waste and scrap. It is simply not possible to have any manufacturing process which is 100% efficient. If you want to be clean, work in an office. Even the most complex and modern CNC machines require operator intervention, someone has to load stock and tools into the machine, someone has to maintain it.
The definition of dirty in a manufacturing environment is somewhere which has no more than 10,000 particles per unit area. There are situations where manufacturing occurs in a class 10,000 cleanroom but that too will have waste. No matter what, manufacturing is a long way away from the bean bags, isolation chambers, and massage chairs of a Silicone Valley software development environment.
Manufacturing needs people.
It’s possible that 100 years from now we’ll have machines manufacturing everything in factories devoid of people, except the ones maintaining the machines, of course. But people are great. They are there to set up the machine, keeping an eye on the entire machining process, and when something goes wrong they can fix it and even give the engineer feedback.
The qualities needed by an operator cannot be replicated by a machine. It’s what makes us human.
The working hours
When manufacturing a product reaches a point where more of it needs to be produced the manufacturer has two choices; either to stop making the product or add extra shifts. Most companies will choose the latter option as long as it is viable from a logistical and financial perspective. It makes sense that if they are making money from the first shift then the second shift will produce higher output and therefore more money.
The downside of this is that those working in manufacturing at certain companies have to go with the flow of the lack of boundaries this carries. At the best companies, this is made clear from the start and the workers’ schedule is kept steady. Whatever the company you can forget about a 9 to 5 work schedule.
What about robots?
When we talked about factory floors abundant with manual labor some will automatically think about robots. But industrial robots have been with us since the 70s. If you are so inclined you can even go to a scrapyard and pick yourself an industrial robot or even a complete assembly line. This trend will continue but the work of humans will simply develop and change.
For example, the linework will not be capable of being replaced by robots. Robots are complex machines, they require a highly optimized process, which means higher volumes to justify increased costs. Robots in the future will become ever more complex and costs will increase further still.
The adaptability of a human is the most positive trait we possess. Truly multi-function robots simply do not exist, they will do one focused job very fast and very efficiently for a long time, but you cannot ask a robot which sprays car bodies to stitch leather seats or to put on body panels or get in the seat and test everything.
Horses used to be humanity’s main form of transport for millennia, but when the internal combustion engine came along they were no longer needed, are we to go the way of the horse? No, the equine industry in 2018 was worth more than $300 BILLION.
Sourcing raw materials
No matter how automated a factory facility is, it will come down hard without a well-developed supply chain. Making anything requires raw materials, whether that is chemicals or metal stock. Sub-assemblies will require other components such as resistors, servo motors or power modules.
All of this has to be delivered just-in-time, otherwise, there is a massive outlay in stock and warehousing to consider.
No pain, no gain. No fake just make
It would be easy to think that this post was being negative, on the contrary, we want to show just how difficult it is but it is difficult for a reason.
We want people to see that the product and manufacturing they are sometimes blasé about took a lot of work to create. The people who work in this industry do so because they love the job, they knew that it wasn’t easy when they set off on their career path.
Earlier in the post, we mentioned Elon Musks Spaceman in his Tesla Roadster, off somewhere in space, orbiting the Sun. Without the hard work of designers, engineers, and machine operators, this would not have been possible. Yes, manufacturing is not easy. But it’s these people who are building the future. They are building your new iPhone, your new self-driving car, and most importantly, it is these people creating the ventilators keeping people alive.