Sunday, March 6, 2022

The Conversion of a Reluctant Manufacturing Engineer

Back in 2010 I was interviewed several times and I would get asked what I wanted to do. Frankly at the time I didn't really understand that design, manufacturing, and testing were the three main areas of engineering. I didn't understand that engineers don't do all of those things. Then in the winter of 2014-2015 I was a design engineer and part of a big product launch when a weld manufacturing engineer I worked closely with asked if I would joint manufacturing. I laughed. I laughed because I saw how hard that job was, but I still didn't make the connection that manufacturing was such a key aspect of a business and the manufacturing engineers were no different than me. I think my ego of a masters degree and design experience seemed to make me uniquely qualified for my role, while I imagined that the manufacturing engineers had some special training or aptitude for their roles, while in general they didn't.

Somewhere I saw a quote attributed to the founder of Toyota that a good engineer gets his hands dirty on the floor and has to wash his hands at least three times a day. I can't find the quote after a short search so it's very possible it's misattributed or never happened. However, it's stuck with me for over a decade. I have always felt that an engineer needs to be out there on the floor or in the field touching the parts. That's how you understand the actual parts and not just the virtual models of those parts on the computer screen. Still, I never saw myself in manufacturing, despite the months of work days that I spent on the manufacturing floor starting in graduate school in 2008.

In 2020 for various reasons, a major one being how difficult the job is, both of the manufacturing engineers involved in daily manufacturing at my company left, and I moved over to manufacturing. I've been here just over a year and a half now, and I have learned a lot. For example, Elon Musk gave an interview last year to Everyday Astronaut Tim Dodd and about halfway through the video he goes on a tangent about how design is overrated and manufacturing is underrated. Based on my 12 years in industry, yes, design is typically perceived to be mentally challenging and manufacturing is not, even though it really is quite the mental challenge and a challenge for many companies. 

In January and February I polled 20 of my coworkers who are not in manufacturing and asked "What would it take to get you to join manufacturing?" Most laughed at me. All 20 initially said no, with one saying maybe when I poked and prodded on her career plans. For six of them I then asked a follow on question "What if we doubled your salary?" and still only three said yes. It's mind-blowing to me that people would not take this job for double their salary. Everyone I asked makes at least $80,000 per year. When I moved over to manufacturing there was no pay raise, I did it because it needed to be done. 

Seeing the war in Ukraine, and not to mention all the supply chain issues we have seen in the last two years both as a consumer and in business, I've been thinking about how important manufacturing is. Specifically, while the war in Ukraine is on the smaller side, if you go back to world war two American factories were pumping out tanks, planes, ships, and all manner of other equipment working seven days a week and 24 hours a day. The size of that effort now overwhelms me just thinking about it. My personal demand for manufactured things is small, I don't buy that much stuff, yet as I approach a car purchase in the years to come, I can't help but think cars are a wonder of manufacturing.

In Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs he recounts on page 546 in the hardcover how Steve told President Obama that moving iPhone manufacturing to the USA would take 700,000 people, which they could get, but 30,000 manufacturing engineers, which they couldn't get unless there was a way to get them all trained. As the war in Ukraine goes on and people fear a new cold war, I realized again how important manufacturing is. We can do without manufacturing for months, years even, by repairing the current things we already have, but if we want new things that are more highly engineered and more capable than our old things, we need to manufacture. 

Where am I going with this? Until just recently I still saw myself as a design engineer, that is where most of my career has been and I'm good at it. For years when asked to put a job title on a form I've just put engineer, and I'll keep doing that even as my title changes. I think I've had some shame at being a manufacturing engineer, it doesn't seem as illustrious as a design engineer, but the longer I live in the manufacturing world the more I realize how interconnected design, test, and manufacturing are, and how manufacturing is in many ways the most important part. For example NASA has designed dozens of space vehicles that were never built or tested, but SpaceX has already built and is about to test a rocket which, if successful, is a total game changer. 

So I encourage other engineers, especially ones with less than 10 years experience, to do a stint in manufacturing and see what the challenges are in person. It will be infuriating at times when changes so small you can't even see the difference with your eyes take days to solve. But that is the whole point, to solve the mundane issues so that it's easier to build the thing in the future. 

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