September 14, 2004
This article grew out of an FMA discussion board posting about new press brake controllers and software in which someone asked, "Do I really need all of these bells and whistles?"
A profound fact of today's technology-intensive world is that skilled press brake operators are now unnecessary. After all, with CAD, CAM, and world-class press brake controllers that can do it all, who needs more highly paid, skilled workers? Wait a minute ... Say what?
I cannot dispute the fact that skilled press brake operators are hard to come by, mostly because of the industry's mindset—its failure to recognize a skilled operator's value and offer incentives for more people to become skilled. A very large segment of the precision sheet metal industry believes that skilled press brake operators now are unnecessary and that new CAD systems are the reason, much as a personal computer can allow the single-finger typist to be productive.
Sadly, it's not just our industry that no longer believes in or is willing to pay for skilled professionals.
I have no doubt that you can, and are, making money using the newer, more sophisticated tools, but not nearly what could be made with these tools in the hands of skilled operators. Twenty years ago, not a single person made it into programming or engineering departments without spending substantial time on and around the punches, press brakes, and shears. There was good reasoning for this. Those with hands-on experience knew the systems, understood the machines, and knew the forming process and the methods they needed to employ.
A skilled and experienced operator with only average skills should be able to produce at least four times the output of a new or low-skilled operator, even on a bad day.
If one $20-an-hour employee can produce the work of four or more low-skilled operators making $8 an hour with matching Social Security payments, health insurance, and workers' comp, companies that take the low-skilled route are losing ground and a lot of it. Taking this into consideration, I submit that the need for highly skilled press brake operators has not been eliminated. In fact, the need has increased dramatically. (Is it really any wonder that we're losing jobs and work to foreign markets?)
The second skill-related issue is this: With technology providing all the necessary setup and bending information, the operator's skill set, including his ability to make press brake adjustments and learn the machine, is reduced. Couple that with the fact that most programmers and engineers usually have had little or no actual experience on the machines themselves (unlike 20 years ago), and you have to wonder if the newer technology is achieving all it could.
Just because the software has made some selections and the part is workable does not mean the process is the best, fastest, or most efficient way to produce the part. Without proper skills, how will the operator know if it could be done better or faster? The computer? Think again. The need for skilled operators is paramount. If the operator does not understand what "dwell" means, for example, or any of the hundred other press brake functions now available on most new machines, your work force is just playing around and nothing more.
I also take exception to the paradigm that press brake software reduces batch sizes. The credit for that goes to management for implementing lean practices. Nor does press brake software eliminate the need to lay out the part; it's just done somewhere else, at the CAD system most likely. The DXF files that now slip from computer to machine controller and back again know only the perfect world in which they were created. The computer knows nothing about whether or not the operator has achieved the desired results, inside bend radii, or bend deduction, which, as we all know, can make or break a finished piece.
I'm not saying that the newer press brake systems with all the bells and whistles are bad or inadequate; they are not. The lack of skill and understanding at all levels is the real issue.
Ahh, that's all fine and well, you say; but if I spend my time and money to train people correctly, they'll just move down the street for 50 cents more an hour.
Sure, that's always a possibility, even without the training. Even if they do, so what! You've still increased the knowledge and abilities of the work force at large. Would that really be such a bad thing?
My experience has always been that no employee is going to move over to the competitor if he or she is happy. If the worker is trained and progressing, give him a 50-cent-per-hour increase. One well-trained operator is worth four or five pedal pushers. In other words, if employees are happy, challenged, and treated with respect, skilled workers will make you money—even if they cost a little more.