Here’s an all-to-familiar scenario. You update a model and send it to manufacturing — only to learn that the floor doesn’t build the old version according to the approved drawings. Somewhere between drawing release and shipping, someone took matters into their own hands. Acted unilaterally. Decided they knew better.
So your updates may or may not be relevant. It’s frustrating, and it’s a problem that is probably as old as the industrial revolution, when we first started separating out production tasks. The machinists, technicians, assembly line, and everyone else downstream tinker with your design, without any qualifications or a full understanding of why you designed it the way you did.
Everyone thinks they’re an engineer. But there are a few things you should know before you retaliate with a YouTube video of your own—from the perspective of the people who make your 3D models in meatspace.
1. Your degree is overrated.
Engineers typically bring at least a bachelor’s degree to the job. But there are many examples of successful people who traded experience for that piece of paper. In fact, the National Science Foundation reported a while back that approximately 22% of workers in science and engineering fields do not have a bachelor's degree.
Plus, a traditional engineering degree doesn’t prove you’ve ever built anything in real life—unlike your colleagues on the shop floor. That’s why high school and college extracurriculars like robotics and racecar competitions are finding their way into STEM programs these days. Engineers that build things are more credible throughout the organization. They get it.
2. Manufacturing teams are more skilled than ever.
The manufacturing workforce has dwindled, in part because of new technologies. Robots can weld, pick, and assemble around the clock without getting fatigued—or getting it wrong. At the same time, a single CNC machine can replace several machinist jobs at once.
But the people who remain to keep these machines going are more skilled than ever. CNC operators may need to know how to program the machine, understand the tooling involved, reset the systems for each new part run, etc. In the burgeoning 3D printing industry, some of the most sophisticated and expensive systems require knowledgeable operators to work with electron beams, titanium powders, and a clean vacuum-sealed environment. And, yeah, they take math. Factory jobs are multi-faceted and require broader technical knowledge than before.
3. They’re in higher demand than you.
While I’ve talked before here about apparent shortages in mechanical engineers in the US, it’s nothing compared to the looming shortage in the skilled trades. The average high-skilled manufacturing worker is 56 years old and isn’t likely to work far into retirement. According to Manpower, 82% of manufacturers report a moderate or serious shortage in skilled production workers already.
While the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a sluggish 5% growth in mechanical engineering jobs over the next decade, electricians, CNC operators, and millwrights will see demand for their skills grow up to 20% in the same period.
In short, you may be more replaceable than them in the near future.
Ending the Design Free for All
Does all this mean it’s open season when you send your carefully engineered (and approved) designs over the wall?
Not necessarily. But it may mean that part of your design for manufacture efforts should include working more closely with downstream teams.
“The successful creation of a prototype is in no way an indication that large quantities of identical units can be economically or reliably produced,” writes S.W. Pulitzer in this 2008 thesis after spending time embedded at Raytheon. “Indeed, transitioning a new technology from the laboratory in which it was created to a production environment can be as challenging as the actual development. As products increasingly become more technologically complex, the need for close coupling between R&D and production groups also grows.”
If nothing else, walk the production floor from time to time and see if the machine operators and assemblers have inked up your drawings with their own notes. Then find out why. And most of all, make sure that whatever winds up in your data management system reflects the final product. That way, you’re not wasting your time updating models nobody was using anyway.
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