To be master of the machine, you have to have knowledge and the skills to teach the machine – Mitsuru Kawai
I grew up in the aerospace machining world and before I was ever allowed to work with automated technologies such as CNC machining centers or CMM inspection equipment, I was first required to work with my hands. It was a rite of passage, so to speak, and an important part in building a foundation to growth and improvement.
Today, new employees to our trade often skip this step, instead jumping right into CNC machining. This is a mistake that not only limits their individual growth, but also impedes their ability to inform and improve processes that are key to a company’s survival.
At age 12, my first machine shop responsibilities involved cleaning and maintaining the facilities and equipment, assembling and deburring parts, and drilling holes with a drill press. Each of these jobs teach valuable lessons. Clean toilets and floors, and you’ll be discouraged from leaving a mess for others to clean up. Keep equipment clean and maintained, and you’ll benefit from machine uptime. Debur parts, and learn what not to do during machining. Assemble parts to learn how important it is to focus and pay attention. Drill thousands of holes to learn about metal working fluids, hole preparation, tool runout, tool wear, visual and mechanical inspection, feeds and speeds, and how to manage solitude and boredom.
Whenever I complained about the work, my father would describe the things he did when he was twelve years old. Because his father had been killed during World War II, he had no choice but to earn money doing whatever he could to help put food on the table for his family. At one point, he was a winter cook in Germany for a group of men who pulled felled trees out of the forest with horses. He would make sure hot food was ready for them when they took their breaks and pull any food that happened to fall into the fire during cooking out of the fire even if it meant using his bare hands.
Suffice it to say, it didn’t take long for my father’s stories to put the work I was doing in the machine shop into perspective. It has instilled in me a great appreciation for how hard this kind of manual work is and I continue, to this day, to benefit from that perspective. Indeed, whenever I take someone on a tour of Evaero, I make it a point to introduce them to our deburring team explaining how much respect I have for the difficult work they do.
Once I put in my time doing the sort of work outlined above, I “graduated” to larger manual machining equipment such as mills and lathes. The CNC equipment was still off limits however and, although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, the experience proved to be invaluable to my education. In addition to learning how metals respond to different machining conditions, I was also able to help manufacture workholding equipment for production, an activity that requires enormous attention to every small detail.
Although the movement to automated CNC technologies via manual work was often chalked up as “paying your dues” and as a “rite of passage,” I really learned a lot from the process. Furthermore, because the learning was more intimate and immediate, I firmly believe I gained a better set of skills for solving problems and in turn, improving CNC processes.
In his seminal 1945 book How to Solve It, Hungarian mathematician George Pólya outlined the following steps for solving a mathematical problem:
- Understand the problem.
- Make a plan.
- Carry out the plan.
- Look back.
Although learning and performing manual machining processes can help develop skills that will benefit each of these steps, it’s in “understanding the problem” that, when compared to automated processes, helps most of all. That is because with manual processes the intimacy and immediacy of the work makes it easier to answer questions such as: What is unknown? What are the data? What is the condition? Can you separate the various parts of the condition?
What’s beautiful is that what you learn while working manual processes is directly transferrable to automated processes. For that reason, Toyota has started moving humans to take the place of robots in parts of their operations so employees develop new skills and improve the car building process (see here):
Learning how to make car parts from scratch gives younger workers insights they otherwise wouldn’t get from picking parts from bins and conveyor belts, or pressing buttons on machines. At about 100 manual-intensive workspaces introduced over the last three years across Toyota’s factories in Japan, these lessons can then be applied to reprogram machines to cut down on waste and improve processes…Experiences there have led to innovations in reducing levels of scrap and shortening the production line 96 percent from its length three years ago.
Although Evaero is a small, resource-strapped company we’ve taken steps to create a manual learning center that is separate from our production facility where we hope we’ll be able to offer trainees hands-on experiences with manual machining equipment. In doing so I hope that in the long run, we and our customers are able to benefit from the things they learn.
Although I’ve got a bunch of new music to share, Morgan Spurlock has a new documentary (hat tip Jason Kottke) called Crafted that I think fits nicely with today’s theme. From the trailer included below is a quote that could be echoed by most of the folks who work at Evaero and puts the work we do in perspective:
A single injury can have far-reaching consequences. If I injure my hands, I can’t feed my family.
If the trailer is of interest you can watch the 25-minute documentary here on Amazon (free with Prime membership).
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