December 12, 2002
Some of the following story may seem somewhat strange for an article about precision sheet metal and press brake operation, but my hope is that by reading this article, you will find that history can shed some light into a few of the darker corners of press brake and press brake department operations.
Several challenges affect our industry:
When confronting any of these challenges, you might ask, "Why are we doing it this way?"
So, back in time we go for the answers.
In the early 1860s when the Prussian (German) Prince Otto Edward Leopold Von Bismarck was the ambassador to the court of Czar Alexander II of Russia, he looked out of the palace window and saw a sentry stationed in the middle of the vast palace lawn. Bismarck asked Czar Alexander why the sentry had been stationed there, as there was no immediately apparent reason for the guard to be there.
The czar summoned his chief of staff to find out why. Like the czar, the chief of staff did not know the answer either, but he too noted that the sentry had been there as long as he or anyone else could remember. Upon hearing that bit of information, the commander general of the army was summoned. "Comrade General, why is that sentry stationed in that isolated spot in the center of the lawn?" asked the czar.
"Your Majesty, that sentry has been stationed there in accordance with ancient custom." Ambassador Bismarck then asked, "Interesting. How did that custom originate?"
"I have no idea, Your Majesty," the general said. "Then investigate it, General, and report your findings back to me!" the czar proclaimed. "It will be done, sire!" said the general as he turned and left the room.
The general's investigation took three days to complete. Upon completion it was discovered than the order to station the sentry on that spot had been issued 80 years earlier by none other than Catherine the Great. The records showed that early one spring morning in the year 1780, Catherine the Great of Russia was gazing upon the vast palace lawn. Her eyes caught site of the first fragile yellow daffodil of spring. Inspired by the beauty of this flower protruding through the frozen and snow-covered ground, she decreed, "Captain of the Guard, see to it that a sentry is posted to prevent anyone from picking that flower."
Eighty years later at the very spot where that small, fragile flower had once bloomed, a sentry was still standing guard.
Upon hearing the real reason for the guard being there, Czar Alexander ordered the practice stopped. He considered it a waste of time, energy, and resources. To this day that spot has been left unguarded.
I have no real historical proof that this story is true, but I am reasonably sure that events such as this have happened many times throughout history and have raised the following questions: Was it habit? Was it custom? Or was it just a case of "Well, we...we've always done it this way!"
Fewer and fewer people are entering the precision metal trades. Craftsmen who have the required knowledge and skills are retiring or moving on to other things in record numbers. Manufacturers are seeing a significant decline in their reservoir of skilled labor and the knowledge those skilled persons possess. Not to diminish the value of training, press brake operation is a skill that requires considerable practice.
Today the case could be made that a large pool of skilled workers (as if that still was available) is no longer necessary for the smooth operation of a modern sheet metal shop, whether that operation is at the press brake, laser, or punch. It also can be said that if the program or process is written down, that is, setup sheets, and as long as the operator can follow that setup sheet, all is well and good parts will be produced.
For the most part, those last two statements are true, but with the skill and knowledge levels on the shop floor declining, setups and setup sheets being created offline by engineers or designers without practical machine knowledge, and with ISO requirements calling for parts to be produced in the same manner every time, we run the risk of losing opportunities to train operators and innovate processes.
Without the hands-on, decision making practice that creates skilled operators, many operators will lack the skills necessary to innovate and improve processes.
Do we want our work force to end up like the soldier who guarded a flower—never knowing why or for what purpose he was doing what he did day after day other than someone in authority told him the job had to be done a particular way, because we've always done it this way?
Instead, let the operators practice their trade on those day-to-day simple parts. Why not let them try new techniques and processes? Let your employees innovate (within certain parameters) if for no other reason than to strengthen their skills. Empower them! The best technology in the world is only as good as the skill of the operator using it.
Don't stand guard over a lone fragile flower just because you've always done it that way. As the czar said, stop wasting time, energy, and resources.