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Challenging roles MEs will play.

Challenging roles MEs will play

People are talking about you. People who buy your company's products are asking why you can't make them perfect every time and sell them for less than your cost of materials. People in the corporate office who once felt you were just overhead are wondering how those capital investments you want would ever pay off. People in other departments who now must interface with you are blaming you for not understanding their roles when they hardly understand yours. People who make computers are trying to capture some of your expertise with AI software and ultimately decimate your numbers. Your family and friends hear about all those plants shutting down and wonder how secure your job can be. People overseas, some of whom who speak better English than you do, are saying they can do your job better than you can, and at half the cost. And finally, people like us who write about you, are wondering if it's possible to capture the essence of your present and future role in manufacturing when you're such a diverse bunch of characters we don't really know enough about.

These people talking about you are more than just gossips and nags. They are among the forces of change bombarding the ME from all sides. If you haven't already, you will soon have to face up to it: Like it or not, your job in the '90s will be greatly different from anything it has been in previous decades. There are many changes in store for the ME function--all are serious, and all have some potential to bring you pain.

But for those of you who survive this transformation, the new stature you will gain should be very rewarding. So, brace yourself! These are indeed the best and worst of times, and you will be playing a very important role in them.

The ME of the '90s

Few have given your new role much serious thought. Few outside manufacturing realize the magnitude of the ME's metamorphosis, or even care. What was once a case of a sleepy, evolutionary progress, has become a major revolution. The fact that the production process is being totally restructured is better known and understood-- we've heard enough of those robot and automation jokes--but few realize that the ME must change along with it. Those focusing on this transformation tend to be so dazzled by technology itself, they miss the people issues for the ME, himself or herself. The multi-year cycles of hardware development and implementation are relatively easy to anticipate. The changes in the ME's role, however, can come much quicker and be less predictable.

What follows is what we've picked up on our radar about the new you-- the ME of the '90s. It should make for interesting reading. Some of it may even prove to be true. But, then who are we to tell you what your world is like today or what it will become? That's why we invite you to participate. You know better what lies ahead. So, after you've read our picture of your future, we want to give you an opportunity to respond with your own interpretations and feelings. How much of this is nonsense, and how much has a change of becoming reality? We really want to know, just as much as you do. So we ask that you fill out the questionnaire at the end of this article and mail it back to us. Then, next fall, after we've had time to analyze and digest these returns, we'll report a more accurate picture of your future.

Factory trends

First, let's examine some changes in the workplace and their potential effect on the ME environment. The "Factory of the Future" pipe dreams of the early '80s have given way to more down-to-earth versions of manufacturing-- much closer to the realities and practicalities of today's competitive marketplace. Today's winners in the productivity and quality derby have not been those who begged high tech to save them from their sins, but those who used it as an evolutionary step up, or even a one-for-one replacement for already successful manufacturing technology.

Although food retailing has seen the ubiquitous Mom-and-Pop grocery replaced by super- and now mega-markets, manufacturing has seen the reverse of conglomeration. The mega-factory is being replaced by the Mom-and-Pop factory. Small shops (under 100 employees) are providing two thirds of all new jobs. Although less likely to be highly automated, those that take that plunge, do so wholeheartedly, not in the half-way or isolated manner often seen in the larger companies. There is also a splintering of services as manufacturing continues to look outside to newly formed service companies (and even middleman service brokers) for maintenance, repairs, software, installations, training, etc.

Beyond the smaller-is-beautiful trend, there are predictions of some totally new factories: 1. The disposable factory--a short-term shop that rents everything and then quickly disbands when a market disappears. 2. The shared factory--a shop designed to be very flexible and highly automated that will sell manufacturing time to others who cannot afford to develop this technology themselves.

These new entities with their emphasis on small size and great flexibility will directly affect the new ME role. Small companies will need generalists who understand the entire operation, and can meld and finetune the required mix of people, equipment, materials, vendors, budgets, processes, and information. The use of group technology to try to simplify and keep under control this more complex, rapidly changing manufacturing process will have the long-term side effect of reducing the ME role.

Meanwhile, only the largest companies will be able to afford narrow ME specialists. Specialties imply turf, and turf implies barriers between specialties. These barriers cannot be tolerated in the long term. They must be reduced, if not totally dissolved, for the company of the future to function effectively.

So, more often, as we move into the future, these specialties, and the specialists who perform them, will move to a contract basis and be provided by outside consultants. As these roles become more complex, specialists will organize into "holding" companies of specialty groups. Thus, if you're a specialist today, you should prepare for this potential change, and the possibility of joining or forming a skills company.

Multiple roles to play

The new you will wear many hats, and learn to play many roles. Let's look at some of these strange, new ME job functions predicted for your future: Weapon master: The most exciting (and challenging from your standpoint) is your projected role of `Provider of the Company Competitive Advantage"--a white knight honing and flashing the cutting edge of the company's "competitive weapon", manufacturing. Think of it! Those same second-class citizens management once locked in the factory broom closet and consigned to monitoring obsolete processes are going to be suddenly brought out into the daylight of intense competition and asked to do battle with the champions of industry, worldwide!

Quite a change, eh? If true, this would mean a brave new world for today's ME. To be able to deliver, you will need an array of new tools: access to top management, a role in corporate planning, vastly increased training, expanded job functions, financial access, and expanded work locations.

More responsibilities and clout should mean more remuneration, but there will be no guarantees. Some will thrive on this challenge, others (particularly older hands) will abhor it. Those with many years of experience will wonder whether this is an asset or a liability. Team player: No longer can MEs be tech freaks, hiding off in the corner, talking only to themselves and their machines. Sure, you'll need a much heavier load of tech skills, but you'll also need a variety of people skills to get anything accomplished.

To get design, marketing, purchasing, accounting, and distribution to work together with manufacturing will require working groups of teams representing each department: permanent groups to ensure long-term integration of ideas and goals, and temporary groups to address specific projects. Techniques such as job rotation may be used to eliminate interdepartmental barriers. The integration of databases also will help to remove artificial barriers, but the keys will be managerial guidance and employee initiative. CIM's missing link: Now that we have more experience with the integration of computer aided manufacturing, we are finding that only an estimated 15 percent of design-engineering (CAD) is used in manufacturing (CAM). This is a recognition that MEs must generate a significant portion of their CAM database and not count on simply processing the hand-me-down CAD database, i.e., MEs must be just as creative--think just as hard--as designers. Simulation games: Beyond their normal tasks of developing manufacturing processes, MEs will use new electronic databases, software, and other tools to simulate alternative future processes, do research, weigh process economics, and refine their understanding of process nuances. They will be able to pinpoint the source of tolerance, finish, clean-up, appearance, rework, and maintenance costs and problems. Freed from detail design work by computers and AI, they will have more time to spend on analysis; i.e., the opportunity to do more real engineering, and less dogwork. The flip side, unfortunately, would be fewer MEs. Mathematical genius: More specifically, MEs will move to higher levels of conceptualization--graduate-level math, new mindsets, different mental approaches, and inputs from people not normally associated with the practical aspects of production. You will need new handles on lifecycle costing, environmental effects, materials sciences, and even marketing research.

The greater emphasis on problem solving will demand advanced training in problem-solving techniques. You will need to know how to ask the right questions and then measure the "dimensions" of responses. This new emphasis on data analysis will mean, hopefully, decisions based on "facts" will replace those based on "gut feel." Speedy Gonzoles: Quality, your company's ability to deliver goods that live up to your customers' expectations, is the present fad goal for management, but in the longer term, time will be the criteria for evaluating companies--turnaround time, production time, and on-time delivery. When quality (both in products and related services) becomes a given--something everyone has because everyone must have it to survive--then time, or the speed it takes you to deliver that quality product, will be the basis upon which companies will be judged. As the key to that production-process efficiency, so too will you be judged and rewarded.

Numbing career numbers

Some of the stats being tossed around about your future certainly challenge your credulity and their credibility. Some are saying your job turnover will double. (Generally, the present turnover rate for all US jobs is once every five years and accelerating.) Others say that one third of you will chose to broaden your functions into marketing and nonengineering areas. Still others say that one in six of you will split completely into a marketing function. A recent survey of MEs indicated that one in four of you believe you will be out of ME by the end of the next decade, and that those who remain will need twice the technology background they have today.

Predictions of five job changes in the next 15 years for both MEs and production workers would mean that few could count on permanent jobs (forget about the traditional retirement umbrella!). Not only would your job change, your industry would change. Many will go into business for themselves or form consultant groups, moving from a manufacturing function to a service function. Job sharing, flextime, temporary loan-outs, sabbaticals, and other flexible-employment arrangements will be explored.

As this accelerates, career planning and job-counselling services will become more important for MEs. Professional societies may grow to provide some of this support, and MEs could find themselves spending more time at their local chapter looking for job leads, swapping experiences with others, and getting training in new areas.

Meanwhile, on the home front, the year 2000 will find three fourths of all wives or spouses working full time. This will mean families split by disruptive work patterns. Although MEs will spend more working hours at home with computers, this will probably be in addition to time at the workplace. A lot of this will be psychologically self-stimulated-- your own fault. Engineers, we're told, have great difficulty leaving an issue unresolved on the computer. Thanks to modems and mobile phones, you will never be electronically disconnected from your work, whether you are in planes, cars, or hotels. This is just another aspect of your future that you may find either stimulating or frustrating, depending on your reaction. Also, those tied to long-term projects may develop feelings of technology isolation or depravation, a sense that they are falling behind in the march of technology.

Worrying about losing your job is a new trauma for the ME. You have been among the more neglected in the corporate structure, but because your role was considered important, seldom fired. You are not used to thinking in survival terms. Yet, some surveys reveal a keen awareness in MEs of the severity of competitive pressures, and that many of you are beginning to think in global terms. In contrast, a survey that asked design engineers to look at their future found almost two thirds saying quite calmly that they saw it simply as a continuation of the status quo and were so confident in their own abilities that they foresaw no career roadblocks and were planning only one job change by the year 2000. Our own guess is that MEs are more realistic about the present forces of change.

Training initiative needed

It hardly needs to be said that you will need much more training than ever before. One recent study concluded, "By the year 2000, manufacturing engineers will be required to master more than three times as many technologies as are now available." (Rather than grow additional heads, the solution will more likely be working in teams.)

Just as skill levels will be increasing on the job floor as the numbers employed there decrease, so too, will ME skills be required to increase while your numbers shrink. For those who respond to this demand by adding or broadening their skills, the reward will be increased job security. That's the bargain: you make the commitment to increase your role and value to the company, and the company should recognize that value and if unable to increase your salary accordingly, it should at least strive to maintain your job through the thick and thin of the competitive battles and economic cycles ahead. The company's core group of skills must be preserved at all costs.

Thus, the big questions will be your willingness to pursue this extra training, and the support you will receive from your employer. The airlines, for example, spend up to $70,000/yr for two months of pilot training, but MEs can't expect that kind of support.

It's well known by MEs that the academic world has done a generally poor job of meeting their educational needs. There are very few ME graduate programs around, and few universities with the necessary equipment and personnel to develop them. This is a situation that will not improve soon. It has been pointed out that the graduating engineer of the year 2000 is already 13 years old, and there's little we can do to change the educational system that will produce him or her.

This will mean that you will turn increasingly to professional societies and private training resources. Additionally, you will be videotaping special late-night cable educational broadcasts to build a library for updating yourself in your spare time. Also, to compete globally, more MEs will need to study and work abroad to be able to bring back new ideas and technology.

Management dilemmas

Management, it goes without saying, will be worrying about the new you. Educator Wickham Skinner has said, "Enthusiasm and effort we now have in spades, but the trouble is that productivity, market shares, exports, and trade balances are just about as bad as ever. Something is missing apparently, something more than energy and a determination to do better." Quality guru, Dr W Edwards Deming has been making similar statements for years.

Too often, that something missing is management support. The new ME is only part of the equation. Without a big boost up from management, the ME knight in shining armor is not going to ride off to battle the competitive forces in the manufacturing crusades of the '90s.

With respect to their giving you the support you will need, the key questions management should be asking themselves are: 1. How can we make manufacturing an integral part of corporate strategy? 2. Can we restructure our production processes quickly enough? 3. Can our MEs restructure their skills fast enough? 4. Can our production processes respond fast enough to new market opportunities? 5. How can we best use information as a critical resource? 6. When will all our staffs get the competitive message? 7. Are our MEs willing to broaden their roles?

While too many top executives are focusing on their competitors across the street instead of those across oceans, too few are recognizing the role you could be playing in that competition. Clearly, MEs cannot save companies if management doesn't listen to them. MIT's Lester Thurow has said, "American companies have been markedly slower than their chief competitors to adopt new process technologies."

Other complain that manufacturing mediocrity is symptomatic of decay, and management is just letting it happen. Some in management are responding, "We don't have the money; we don't have the people," feeling their lack of new funding for technology or funds to attract or train skilled workers are insurmountable obstacles. On the outside, the computer industry--the knowledge workers--see a lack of management understanding of the benefits of computerization (quantifying its long-term return) as the obstacle to implementing the information revolution.

It really boils down to three key players: management, design, and manufacturing. Management must create an environment that demands excellence and provides the means to achieve it. Designers must design manufacturable, durable products that meet a market need. MEs must design and develop world-class processes that produce quality products economically.

The punch line

There's no doubt in our mind that an elite strata of ME is developing. A small club already exists, a few outstanding engineers in each city, who are much in demand. The big question for you is: Will you join this group, or be left far behind?

In our concluding article this fall, we will try to resolve some of these issues and answer some of the questions about how the ME will respond to these challenges. We will be talking to engineers, managers, educators, and most importantly, you, the manufacturing engineer.

So, it is vital that we hear from you. We want to know how you feel about all this. Is your role really changing? In what ways? Is this a big deal for you or not? Please take the time to complete the following questionnaire and mail it to us. And, if you'd like to be interviewed and have your comments included in this important discussion, let us know.

PHOTO : The '90's will be an era for team players--integrating the ideas and resources of designers, MES, and production people Your efficiency at people skills must match your efficiency with physical processes and their electronic antecedents.

Photo : The 90's will be an era where the computer becomes a constant companion helping you concepualiza, simulate, probe, solve, control, and master a hosts of new manufacturing situations.

PHOTO : The '90s will be an era of integrating hands on experience with advance engineering analysis, where you will move quikly from the pulse of the process on the shop floor to explaining its impact in the board room.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes survey questionnaire; manufacturing engineers
Author:Sprow, Eugene E.
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Jun 1, 1989
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