Metal Fabrication Industry: A portrait in prose
Three books paint a good picture of the industry
Three books together paint a good picture of this industry. It’s a combination of technical knowhow, pragmatism, down-to-earth humor, and big-picture thinking.
For years metal fabricators have had difficulty finding good help. Nearly every shop owner I talk with tells me that finding people with the right skills and attitude is as tough as ever. Manufacturing has been leading this economic recovery, yet manufacturers often find it difficult or impossible to find eager employees—those with not only technical experience, but also the communication and leadership skills necessary to climb the ladder. The nation’s structural unemployment problem has affected metal fabrication in a big way.
So how do shops introduce new employees to metal fabrication these days? Formal apprenticeship programs are rare, though many companies have new workers shadow veterans. If a shop has modern equipment, new employees may be able to churn out parts in a matter of days.
Does this give those employees a complete picture of the industry? Probably not, but other resources can help. One is industry certification from organizations such as the American Welding Society, as well as a newer program—the Precision Sheet Metal Operator certification—offered by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association (for more on the PSMO certification, visit www.fmanet.org).
Most in metal fabrication learn by doing, a frustration for many technical school teachers with only a few machine tools in the metal shop. Books can’t teach students everything in this hands-on business, but they certainly are less expensive than machine tools. And three books may help students and new employees gain a better understanding about their career choice. Together they may give somebody a technical base, a sense of the metalworker’s personality, and the challenges managers face in a competitive market.
If this were my first day on the job, the first text I’d read probably would be Tom Lipton’s book, Metalworking Sink or Swim: Tips and Tricks for Machinists, Welders, and Fabricators, published by Industrial Press. Lipton is a career metalworker, and his writing shows it. The book gives a broad foundation not only in welding and sheet metal work, but machining as well. The author doesn’t just spout technical facts and dry procedures. Instead, he exudes that direct, pragmatic shop floor voice.
“Sheet metal work is a precision trade no doubt,” Lipton writes. “If you don’t believe me, try welding a badly fit-up job in 24-gauge stainless steel, and see how far you get without tight accuracy and precision fit-up. Typically, sheet metal work is not as closely controlled as machine work, even though some designers and engineers might think it is.”
His prose gives readers a taste of the industry’s get-it-done-right mentality, and hints at some familiar challenges. You can just picture the author on the phone with a customer: “Do tolerances really need to be that tight?”
Another book would be Metal Fabrication: A Practical Guide, written by veteran fabricators and educators Robert O’Con and Richard Carr. The Fabricators & Manufacturers Association released the third edition last year. The text gives readers that sought-after technical foundation, including a taste of how to operate new and old equipment.
The book describes precision, heavy, as well as structural fabrication, and near the end even gives the basics of flat-pattern layout. Software has automated many of the manual calculations, of course. But when software unfolds a 3-D model, a skilled worker who knows how that flat pattern was created—the bend deductions and so on—might dream up better ways to fabricate a part.
Finally, I’d read The Goal, written by Eliyahu Goldratt and published by The North River Press. In this business novel, Goldratt introduces the theory of constraints (TOC), a manufacturing technique that strives for efficiency by focusing the production schedule around an operation’s bottleneck. TOC doesn’t apply to every circumstance in every metal fabrication shop, but Goldratt’s book does give a glimpse into the mind of a manufacturing manager.
Granted, a student or entry-level employee wouldn’t get as much out of The Goal as, say, a manufacturing executive from General Motors (such as the GM executive who wrote a case study at the back of the book’s latest edition). But it may help give those new employees perspective. It shows that manufacturing is not about cutting, bending, or welding the part in front of them. It’s about ethically making a profit and satisfying customers.
The book shows how important critical, clear thinking is in manufacturing. Working tirelessly on a weld fixture so that a robot can access all joints is great until you discover that, with a few process tweaks and minor design changes, those weld joints could have been avoided altogether. All the technical knowledge in the world doesn’t matter if a customer is unhappy, be it because of poor quality, late deliveries, or miscommunication.
One of my favorite scenes in The Goal is when the plant manager stops by the loading dock to observe the delivery of a few decades-old milling centers. His team identified the milling area as a principal bottleneck but, as is typical, the company couldn’t afford new equipment. Nevertheless, they did have a few old, creaky mills sitting in storage. So they wiped off the grime and put them back into production. Yes, they were slow and took forever to set up. They weren’t as accurate as the newer machines, but they could exceed the quality requirements on many jobs. Most important, they increased part flow at the bottleneck and in doing so helped increase the plant’s overall manufacturing efficiency.
As I read this, I immediately thought of industry certifications (like the PSMO) and the value of technical know-how. That scene in The Goal couldn’t have happened without a skilled workforce. There’s so much talk these days of automation. But if a skilled journeyman can increase overall plant productivity just by setting up an old, grimy manual machine, that setup knowledge may be just as valuable as millions of dollars’ worth of automation equipment. This is what makes books like Metal Fabrication: A Practical Guide so important.
Reading these books doesn’t magically make a technical worker completely ready to climb the metal fabrication ranks. But they at least introduce readers to the reality of modern manufacturing. It’s not a job that can be learned overnight, but it is a solid career in serious need of people with technical know-how and leadership to get the job done.
The books give readers a wide-angle view of manufacturing, including insight into how manufacturing managers think, and the technical knowledge base that’s become so critical. In other words, they paint a portrait of the modern manufacturing reality, and despite the stereotypes, the picture doesn’t look bad at all.
The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.