Highlights for fabricators from the past week’s Web articles— More about 3-D printing, this time on a larger scale; the state of steel jobs in Northwest Indiana; politics and fabricating; and one company’s solution to the skilled worker shortage.
Among last week’s Top 5 items was one about 3-D printing and how the technology “has the potential to revolutionize manufacturing: it can reduce the time between changes in a large-scale production line, and allows for more frequent innovations in the item being made as well as for a high level of customization in mass production.” Apparently, it also has the potential to revolutionize how warheads and other weapons are made.
According to an article on motherboard.vice.com, the Army has been developing its 3-D capabilities for some time and has the technology nearly advanced enough to bioprint replacement skin on the battlefield. In war, saving lives and taking lives are parallel objectives, and this same technology that fosters the former also can and will be used to create instruments of death.
”The ability to print parts previously unimaginable using traditional manufacturing methods could radically open up the possibilities when it comes to what a warhead can do. For example, warheads using 3-D-printed components could be designed to be more compact in order to pack in additional payloads, sensors, and safety mechanisms. Planning for printed parts in the design process will also allow the army to precisely engineer the blast radiuses of warheads for maximum effect.”
3-D printers have been touted for a while as being a way to produce smaller products and components, but are they practical for large-scale prototypes and production parts? It appears so, as some equipment manufacturers are preparing to offer technology currently being utilized by entities such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and the U.S. Air Force to produce parts up to 19 feet in length, with a 304 sq. ft. build volume, and made from metals such as titanium, tantalum, stainless steel, cobalt alloys, nickel alloys, copper nickel alloys, and Inconel.
Among these equipment providers is Sciaky Inc., which plans to begin offering its Electronic Beam Additive Manufacturing (EBAM) machines to large companies starting on September 1, 2014.
According to a product description brochure, an “electron beam gun deposits metal layer by layer until the part is complete. Depending on the part being manufactured, deposition rates can range up to 250 cubic inches per hour.”
Anyone involved in U.S. manufacturing knows that many, many good-paying factory jobs have been lost since the dawn of the millennium. While no sector has escaped job cuts, some sectors have been hit harder than others. A recent article on nwi.com provides a look at one such sector and how it has fared in Northwest Indiana—the steel industry.
This industry, “which once drew immigrants from the world over and put bread on many tables for generations, has lost a third of its jobs since 2000. The 33 percent plunge is the result of the domestic industry’s struggles and an increasing amount of automation at the mills that ring Lake Michigan’s southern shore.” However, this significant loss is less worse than the U.S. overall, which has lost 36 percent of its jobs in primary metal manufacturing.
The region’s employment in the sector has actually rebounded over the last few years. The number of metal manufacturing jobs in the Gary metropolitan area has risen by 3.5 percent to 17,900 last year from 17,300 in 2010. But that's a far cry from the 26,700 Northwest Indiana residents who earned their living as steelworkers back in 2000.
What’s keeping steelmakers from adding more jobs? It’s not just weakened demand and increased imports. As the article noted, employees are expensive.
ArcelorMittal USA Estimates its average worker earned $72.53 per hour from wages, benefits, and social insurance programs. That’s more than twice as much as the $34.18 per hour the average manufacturing worker made last year.
The steelmaker spent $162,134 on each worker's salary, benefits, and pension last year, a 12 percent increase over the cost in 2008. Labor is far and away the company’s biggest cost, followed by power, gas and utilities.
While job creation continues to lag behind what it would take to facilitate a robust recovery, politicians continue to do what they do best—seek opportunities for press coverage that places them in the role of caring about situations and working to improve them. Opportunities such as visiting manufacturing facilities.
Earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran visited Fairfax, Kan.-based A&E Custom Manufacturing to learn what it takes to compete in the global economy.
The sheet metal fabricator has invested in high-tech lasers and robotics to successfully bring back work that had moved elsewhere.
“Work is coming home from China,” Sen Moran said. “We ought to be looking at what they do and make sure we do it elsewhere so more jobs remain in the United States or return to the United States.”
During his visit, Moran learned about issues affecting A&E and other manufacturers, issues such as the difficulty finding skilled workers, environmental regulations, and the Affordable Care Act.
The question is: How many shop visits does it take for Congress to actually do something conducive to resolving any of these issues?
Finally, more and more manufacturers are taking measures to alleviate the skilled worker shortage. Vermont Public Radio recently showcased Hanover, New Hampshire-based Hypertherm’s on-site academy necessitated by the company’s aggressive hiring.
Hypertherm invested over $2 million in training machines and instructors during a growth spurt in 2006. At that time, the company needed to hire 60 new machine operators a year for three years. But local vocational programs couldn’t afford expensive up-to-date equipment, and were also losing students, perhaps because they didn’t see a future in manufacturing.
And who’s eligible for the training? People who can do math. Applicants take an aptitude test for competency in basic algebra and what program leader Matt Burge considers “fifth grade math. It’s the equivalent of adding and subtracting change from a cash register.”
Burge said about half the applicants cannot even do that simple arithmetic. But Hypertherm takes the other half and fills in knowledge gaps during the summer for nine weeks. There are courses in math and in teamwork. Hypertherm wants its trainees to join the company, but will educate employees for other manufacturers, because there’s plenty of work to go around where the company is located.