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MEs speak out on their changing role.

MEs speak out on their changing role

What do you think of the picture we painted of a bright, new, greatly expanded role MEs will be playing in the '90s? Is this really you or someone from Mars? Is there evidence this is actually happening anywhere yet?

Our June reader survey on the changing role of the manufacturing engineer drew over 1200 responses, nearly half with comments for us to consider. We tabulated the basic data and presented the results in September, and now we'd like to review a cross section of those individual sentiments and ideas. They were contributed by a spectrum of people ranging from those greatly enthused by this job challenge to some totally dismayed.

For now, these will be annonymous people because we decided, first, not to identify anyone making a statement that could be interpreted negatively (lest we get them in any trouble) and secondly, not to identify those with positive outlooks either (lest we unduly glorify only those with rose-colored glasses). The majority of these quotes, though, were from people who identified themselves.

The survey stats proved (assuming our sample was representative) that you share our vision of major changes in store for MEs, and the enthusiasm for this challenge is widespread. The following comments, we feel, will flesh out this vision by showing the many obstacles that must be overcome before the ME gains new status and the respect that goes with that role.

The big picture

In our search for the big picture on the evolving ME role, our awards for brevity and succinctness go to the following snapshots: * A Wisconson engineer/poet: "This is a time when MEs can really shine." * Echoes a young Virginian: "Never before have engineers had a better chance to move into management." * From a very confident ME in Upper Michigan: "I feel I have the ability to do just about any job that is given to me. If not, it wouldn't take me long to learn how." * Summarizes an ME in Waterloo, IA: "The challenge of change is what keeps this job interesting, and to remain a world-class company, this challenge must persist!" * From a young New Yorker with two associate degrees: "To think that management might finally realize that production would come to a grinding halt without our constant efforts to keep production moving would be the best thing to happen to MEs in 100 years." * From an erudite plant superintendent in Pittsburgh: "I feel it will be the amelioration of the empiric versus didactic syndrome, with profit shortfall demonstrating a real need for ME involvement." (Editor's note: we think he said experience will overcome theory when CEOs listen to MEs) * Or a size XXX-tra-large viewpoint: "It puts me in the position to have a positive impact on the health of our economy."

No future shock here

An ME in Royal Oak, MI, enjoyed our article: "Is this the future? Yes! Am I suffering future shock? No! Times change, people change, but ask yourself how many companies are now using CIM, CAD, CAM, etc? Not nearly as many as have been predicted over the last decade. Well, count all the players today, and then look at this field in another ten years, and you'll see some real changes!"

One reader was especially confident. With his associate degree, tool-and-die apprenticeship, and previous experience, he feels he can get a job anywhere. "The role of the ME is changing and providing many new opportunities. There is little time to get bored."

However, one respondent, 26, fouled our computer by answering our last question on his reaction to the new ME role with all four possible responses, ranging from stimulation to scared stiff. He then explained: "I'm not being facetious. I'm stimulated by the ideas in the article, but I'm also afraid I may not be given the tools I need (education, technology, management support, etc) to do the job." Similarly, a 45-yr old in Eldon, MO, feels it's like walking a tightrope with no net: "It's the case of becoming a company hero or self destructing - with nothing in between."

A 52-yr-old at a mid-sized plant in St Louis liked Editor-in-Chief Dick Green's June editorial on the new status for MEs: "He said it all, and I agree fully. I started in manufacturing right out of high school in 1954. I started my own shop in 1969, and in 1980 I was bought out by a large manufacturer and I'm still with them today. I love my job! Our world is based on competitiveness, and winning is 1 percent ability and 99 percent desire."

But wait a minute, warns a reader in Sidney, OH. Here's the big risk: "If technology is not implemented properly, it will not only be a waste of money, but will also create low morale, bad labor management relations, and be a hindrance for future technology."

It's all in your plan, explains an ME in a large plant in Muncie, IN: "A well conceived manufacturing strategy that addresses competitive pressures and strategic use of technology will provide the need and direction for upgrading the ME role."

Doubting Thomases

Candid comments from the survey's naysayers were equally interesting. "Am I dreaming?" asks a stimulated but doubting Thomas in Wisconsin. "It's about time someone came out of the woodwork and responded to the screaming masses. Now, if only it all would come true. But alas, some of us are still stuck in Kansas - not Oz!"

Others responded: "New challenge, who needs that?" A 39-year-old in Erie, PA says: "I'm wary of the fact that we will be given even more responsibilities and job functions when we are already stretched to the limit." Adds a 53-yr-old non-revolutionary; "With all the added work load and responsibilities - and no pay increase - who needs it?" From a 54-yr-old veteran in Mansfield, OH, who sees the ME challenge as no big deal. "Most engineers are not self-starters. They do what they're told, but rarely take the initiative to apply new ideas of their own or solve problems they know about. They have to be pushed to work, and then work at relaxed speed."

Not everyone is turned on by the dawning Electronic Era. Groans a 47-yr-old on the west coast: "I'm bored stiff! The computers have taken all the fun and challenge out of my job. If I were a little closer to retirement, I'd stick it out. Since I'm not, I'm going to give it all up and go back to ranching."

A negative outlook from an ME in Royal Oak, MI: "I see a clear parallel between the future ME and the QC manager of today - a transformation to diluted responsibility." And a cynical 37-yr-old concludes: "Your survey is slanted to the idea that we MEs are the greatest thing to come along since sliced white bread. I would put little faith in its conclusions."

From a doubting 39-yr-old: "The challenge may be too much for engineering to swallow, and the time already too late to prevent major world-market-share losses." And a 42-yr-old in Phoenix complains: "Sure, we're being given a large load of responsibility. It would be nice if we were also given an equal weight of authority."

The game isn't really changing, points out one 30-year-old, just the players. "The ME role will always be the same: to transfer design concepts into product. Only the tools, methods, and techniques (our own and those of the process) will change."

An exceedingly cynical veteran ME says he's scared stiff by the ME challenge. "Most high tech is bull (bleep) and a con game - a snow job by people selling computers and robots!"

Wary of all these changes, a candid 33-yr-old admits, "There's more to my life than ME."

Youthful enthusiasm

Many of the youth corps coming into ME are savoring all the opportunities they see. A 23-yr-old with a BS degree and only a half year on the job at a small Milwaukee plant: "I have recently been left all alone in the ME/process engineering role at our plant. I see this as an incredible opportunity to gain knowledge while making valuable contributions."

A young ME in Buffalo, NY, replies: "I feel excited by the broadening scope of my job. It's the closest thing to running a company without ownership." But another novice ME at a small plant, his BS degree freshly minted, confesses: "Although I love to learn and gain `cutting edge' knowledge, putting the theory to work is much more difficult than I thought it would be."

Boasts an enthused 28-yr-old in Cedar Rapids, IA: "The fact that I'm younger than a lot of other MEs means I'm better prepared for all the changes coming to today's industries." And an impatient Chicago 30-yr-old says, "it's about time MEs were give their head and allowed to help their companies to greater quality, productivity, and profits. I wish my company would get with it!"

Explains a reader in Orlando, FL, 31, who loved our article: "Opportunity exists if you dedicate your time and effort to reaching beyond what is expected of you and can handle all the heat and responsibility. It will definitely be dumped on you, once you show interest and expertise."

A workaholic in Indiana, 37, boasts: "Some people play golf, some drink. I just like to work. I like to see how many things I can handle at once." And, says an '85 BS graduate who's worked as jack-of-all-trades in a small sheet-metal shop in Raleigh, NC: "I'm the grease that keeps the wheels moving."

Over the hill gang

All these youthful opportunities are making a much older ME in Scranton, PA, jealous: "We are now in an industrial revolution that far surpasses anything experienced in our history. Education, and its application, is the keystone in bridging the technology of smokestacks, hammers, and chisels to a highly sophisticated, rapidly changing technology, understood the world over. Oh, to be 18 again!"

For veteran MEs, both enlightened and burdened by decades of experience, reactions to radical change vary widely. A 54-yr-old feels left out already. "At my age, the changes you mentioned really won't affect me much at all. People like me are the first to go when things slow down, so I get no training and no involvement in meaningful projects. The older engineer still has much to offer, but is bypassed and ignored most of the time - a sorry situation!"

A 57-yr-old in New Haven, CT, feels it's about time management tapped into the wealth of MEs with shop-floor experience: "It's unfortunate that so many MEs came up from the factory floor and are seen by management as second-rate people and looked down upon."

Despite stagnation in his own career growth, one 62-yr-old ME predicts the rest of you will rise to the challenge: "One by one, our dominant products and markets have slipped away. The ME will play a key role in getting them back." Says another hopeful 62-yr-old at a medium-sized eastern plant: "Teaching an old dog new tricks may not be the norm, but these new methods and technologies sure can make me sit up!"

Justifying the process

A common complaint, expressed by one age-60 vet: "Productivity improvements have been stymied by top management for too long. Now, they are realizing that MEs should have been given the approvals they begged for and didn't get!" And a disgruntled 29-year old says his Fortune 500 company does not value MEs, and it shows in their uncompetitiveness. "Our suggestions to improve equipment and processes are ignored and little money is funneled to improve manufacturing."

"Not here," says an enthused Denver reader who doesn't want a greater role in justification: "The ME group now has major influence in selection and justification. We're given the opportunity, and we do contribute major competitive advantages." And a similarly satisfied 54-yr old works at a large plant where MEs are involved in making things happen. "Dreams and planning only become products through ME activity. An ME is involved with education, change, and technology every day."

A young ME in Ft Wayne, IN, feels his company is not only moving too slow, but in the wrong direction: "This company has a great investment in computers, but their sense of direction is misguided." The result has been no appreciable improvement in process productivity and a hindering of his own productivity.

A 29-yr-old in Parkersburg, WV, complains: "Our top management thinks they support MEs and communicate with them, but they don't fully. The result is a highly computerized system, only half-heartedly installed." An engineer in Mansfield, OH, wants to make the process more rational: "The engineering community should make changes in methods and machines based on logic instead of emotions."

A Dayton, OH, resident took issue with our question asking how much cost-cutting MEs think they can accomplish. "Accountants, CFOs, CEOs from MBA schools, and MBA graduates all focus on cutting costs - including salaries and headcounts. This only leads to higher costs and poor quality. Focus instead should be on innovation, improvement, and quality, and this would lead to lower total costs."

(Is this an important issue? If you would like an article next year about the ill effects of an overemphasis on cost cutting, please circle 377 on the Reader Service Card.)

Management flak

Quite predictably, some top managements drew heavy flak for placing barriers between enthused MEs and the heightened responsibilities they crave. These criticisms could be broken down into two major categories: mild (management is simply ignorant) and severe (management is malevolent).

From a 33-yr old at a very large Phoenix, AZ, plant: "The biggest problem we currently face is ignorant upper management - making decisions of great importance without accurate information. They have no visionary leadership abilities!" Adds a 33-yr-old ME in a small midwestern company: "I feel our upper management has no idea of manufacturing and even tries not to understand it. Without the knowledge of the breakthroughs in technology that are happening every day, our company is doomed."

A 28-yr-old in a San Jose, CA, shop with major productivity problems is suffering from isolation: "Too often, at our company, MEs end up in purely desk jobs and lose sight of the real world. MEs can be the link between top management and the shop - we fit into both worlds - but at present, we're not welcomed in either." And unimpressed with high tech, a 44-yr-old in Rock Valley, IA says: "Sure, computers allow MEs to get more work done, but it's the same work as before. There are no new horizons here. Company decisions are still made without ME input."

One solution offered by a Pennsylvanian: "I think this country has an opportunity to turn manufacturing around if we get the MBAs out of the CEO positions and concentrate on bringing manufacturing and MEs into the 21st century." Offers another veteran ME: "The emphasis on short-term goals with little concern for quality or people still predominates in most industries. Real-estate CEOs and short-minded directors are the problem."

A test engineer at the Lockheed Missiles Space Center, Sunnyvale, CA, is worried about bureaucracy impending high technology: "Most computer systems are poorly implemented and overly worshipped for their GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) reports. Shop-floor people must be made the cornerstone of any improvements, and top management must be reduced. All computerization projects must be initiated by pencil-and-paper methods on the shop floor, and then developed into the most practical computer interfaces."

An ME at Northrup Corp, Norwood, MA, is also disgruntled with management. "Technology is growing rapidly, yet those selected for supervision in my department have no formal education. They also do not support our further education efforts. One supervisor's promotion over an ME who was working to advance himself technically was based solely on the former's communication skills, i.e., the ability to use buzz words. It is disheartening to have a senior ME supervisor who doesn't know what torque is or the units of stress. Uneducated management has taken over."

In contrast to these situations, a Grand Rapids, MI, reader reports a situation where ME leadership was gained, then lost: "Our company was once a structure built on MEs. Most of our managers and above started as MEs. Our dollar return was $20 to $25 to 1. Now, with participative management, decentralized engineering structure (i.e., loss of control) and marketing types dictating production, our dollar return has shrunk to $15 to 1 and is dropping further."

Management malevolence

Beyond simple ignorance, some of you accuse management of deliberate nastiness. A Clevelander with a masters degree agrees that the transformation in ME roles is real, but only based on what he's seen at other companies, not his present one. "Our management has to be beaten on - particularly with design for assembly - to get them to do things right. Instead of allocating resources pre-emptively, management presents an endless series of obstacles to getting the job done, and then when the project is floundering, they pull the plug."

A 50-yr old ME with a masters degree at a large plant in California: "Hopefully, manufacturing and the engineering that supports it will become important to a broader spectrum of industries. That hasn't happened here yet. Management is still trying to export everything to this year's cheapest source country." And a similarly worried 48-yr-old in San Jose says: "Our company, like many others, is going to offshore manufacturing to meet the competition, instead of improving our domestic manufacturing. As a result, morale is low because it's only a matter of time until the plant closes."

An elder ME in Des Moines, IA, feels he's cut off from high tech. "Our top management communicates with MEs only in terms of what things they think we should know. Consequently, much of the information we get is second or third hand and not very reliable." Adds a South Carolinian: "The technology is being hoarded by those in upper management who hope to gain some political advantage by not allowing others access to it."

In contrast to these negative views, a 57-yr-old senior VP of operations in Gary, IN, reports: "A certified manufacturing engineer by trade, I've spent the last 15 years in upper management. I recognize the need for MEs and the critical role they play in the complete organization." And a hopeful respondent from Lima, OH, explains: "Productivity and quality are partners for success. Employee involvement programs are challenging and frightening those fast movers in middle management who followed in someone else's footsteps. MEs will become the the middle managers of the '90s."

One tactic, explains a reader in Nashville, TN, is to make a bigger splash in a smaller pond. He recently changed jobs to move from a company of 1500 to one of only 50 people. Why? "To expand my ability to directly affect the decisions made by company management."

Designer relations

An important improvement on the immediate horizon is breaking down the wall between MEs and designers. A young reader in Colorado Springs, CO, feels the role of new computer technology is greatly exaggerated. "The best way to integrate design and manufacturing is not through CAD/CAM, but by simply making the manufacturing and design engineers talk to each other." But a young degreed ME complains: "Only recently with cost figures in hand and much screaming have I convinced the company that we can save a lot by letting me in on the initial designs, ie, designing for manufacturing."

Also perturbed is a 50-yr-old in Marina Del Rey, CA: "Our schools are turning out many incompetent design engineers whose product designs are economically unproduceable. Who gets blamed when the product fails to make quality and schedule requirements? The ME, that's who!"

(Is this an important issue? If you would like an article next year about improving the relationships between MEs and design engineers, please circle 378 on the Reader Service Card.)

But this teamwork requires new skills, warns an ME, 55, working in a large plant: "Manufacturing engineers must start honing their psychological skills to solve humanistic problems or they will be odd-manout on the team."

Writes a young ME: "My company considers the ME a liability, not an asset. Given proper staffing levels, our MEs could research cost-savings programs, but because of competitive pressures and the high cost of technology, my company uses their more highly esteemed product engineers to lead cost-saving efforts on the products we manufacture. MEs are not consulted - we're too busy putting out fires in manufacturing. It doesn't make a lot of sense, does it? I've heard of other companies changing the ME role, but unfortunately, my company has not realized the importance of that change. I, for one, would welcome that opportunity."

Another young ME has the opposite situation. "My company is progressive. We receive much support from design engineering, already have a great role in process selection/justification, and are involved in top-level decision making."

A respondent in Birmingham, AL, is also upbeat. "In the past decade, my industry (patio furniture) has gone from an average product life cycle of six years to three years. This has forced management, design, engineering, and operations to use the team concept. It's exiting!" Adds a 46-yr-old in San Francisco: "As a project ME, I was assigned to our design engineering department for over a year and half to initiate ideas into a prototype design to make it more manufactureable, and it paid off!"

A 52-yr-old in Anaheim, CA, has seen the benefits of simultaneous engineering: "I no longer feel like a doormat or someone who does the dirty laundry. I'm now part of the team that sends a good manufacturable product to manufacturing, instead of trying to make it manufacturable after it reaches production."

The challenge for women

Although most women respondents didn't want to make their sex an issue, one did, a 30-yr-old ME from Wisconsin with a BS degree and seven years experience working in a medium-sized plant: "I am excited by the challenge to women MEs. I want women to help lead America into the 21st century."

A reader, 27, at a large Texas plant, complains that her management will never admit when it was wrong: "I have noticed certain ideological theories and concepts, at first laughed at, are now being implemented without notice or fanfare." Another woman, 45, at a large Minneapolis-area plant, is worried about a lack of management direction and definition: "Our company hasn't defined our structure, and the unknown is usually scary."

A young female ME at a very large Milwaukee plant, is upset with others in her group who aren't getting the high-tech message. "I'm dismayed that many MEs seldom look at the trade magazines with an eye to what could be used here. There's so much they've never heard of before - technology that's been on the market for years. I sound like a dreamer to them, and they sound out of touch to me."

Training gap

The training crisis - defining what's needed and then figuring out how to obtain it - continues to be a major problem. One woman, 50, with a high-school education and almost enough credits for an associate degree, says, "Since all my training has been on-the-job in a nonacademic atmosphere, I fear being tripped up by the gaps in my education."

Warns one reader, 56, admittedly scared stiff about his own job challenges: "Most `MEs' are not even involved or working at manufacturing processing. They know very little about metals, materials, heat-treating processes and their effects on metals, fixturing, clamping parts, flat surfaces, lapping and grinding techniques, etc; and they are not learning these things in school either. It takes lots of time, experience, and self-learning by reading and doing the job. And lots of interest in making things."

An associate-degreed 36-yr-old Ohioan is also scared stiff. "It requires constant training to keep up with all the changes. I may never finish going to school because by the time I achieve a skill, it may already be obsolete."

Warns a 47-yr-old in a Pittsburgh medium-sized company: "There is a whole generation of managers - aged 40 to 65 - who grew up and went to school without calculators, much less computers. These people are willing to learn, but they need guidance and training. But our company is killing its managers' initiatives by hiring younger inexperienced computer-trained engineers. This is not necessarily bad, but why not train your experienced people? What a loss of knowledge!"

(Is this an important issue? If you would like an article next year about in-house training programs for senior MEs, please circle 379 on the Reader Service Card.)

A New Englander, 50, feels its time for business to wake up to manufacturing and quit listening to marketing: "America's manufacturing base is practically destroyed. MEs potential can only be properly realized by intensive training after formal schooling, and by providing better opportunities and higher responsibilities. MBAs have not delivered it. Even the basic principle of socialism is to produce the `pie' first, before it can be distributed."

One Boston respondent is constantly on the look-out for technology solutions: "I spend 30-percent of my work week trying to keep up with all manufacturing developments."

Points out a veteran woman ME in Houston: "Here's a major problem: Where are the manufacturing schools in the US? None are of outstanding quality."

A good answer to the training-gap problem is what one large (1400) Hartford, CT, plant is doing, reports a 43-yr-old ME: "We feel strongly committed to growing the ME function in the future, to the point where we have instituted an 18-month ME training program to recruit and train bright new engineers out of college. We feel forced to do this because schools currently do little to prepare young people for a manufacturing career."

Mired in the past

Some of you report you're still living in the bad old days of manufacturing engineering - decades or more behind the rest of us. Warns a 26-yr old ME in Flint, MI: "ME should not stand for `Maintenance Engineer.' We should be spending more time improving equipment and product designs instead of repairing equipment."

Says a 52-yr-old in Columbia, SC: "MEs at our plant are firemen. After everything's screwed up, we have to fix it, and we usually have no say in any of their `crisis management decisions.''' Adds a 34-yr-old at a huge Dallas plant: "At this company, MEs are part chasers and problem solvers. Your editor is dreaming in his article." And in Portland, ME, a 46-yr-old at a mid-sized plant: "My company has put MEs in the position of glorified rigers - just setup men. We're always putting out fires, never looking at cost reduction."

A 63-yr-old in Lewisburg, TN, is excited about improving on ME's low status and shrinking career opportunities: "Management perception is that any dissenter is a troublemaker, when the reality is that all we desire is more efficiency, higher yields, less waste, etc - in a nutshell, a finely tuned productive engine."

The future is now

In contrast to these situations, one lucky ME reports he's already living in the future ME world we painted. He has total control of manufacturing equipment selection and justification and saved his Pochahontas, IA, company $1,025,000 in 1988. "After reviewing your article, I find that much of my day-to-day activity is identical to the `New ME of the future.'''

So, it is possible!
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.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:survey of manufacturing engineers
Author:Sprow, Eugene E.
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Nov 1, 1989
Previous Article:Stampers turn to transfer presses.
Next Article:Tailored materials shape the future.

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