Probably one of the most interesting careers I have had so far was working as a manufacturing engineer. I have done this for a total of 6 years, and this experience was so positive that it changed my career ambitions …
Why I Did It
I had spent most of my career in product development, but after a moderate period of unemployment I accepted a position with a fairly large factory as a manufacturing engineer. At the time I didn’t really relish the idea of working in manufacturing engineering, but I thought it would be a good gateway to a more desirable position in product development in a highly-respected company.
Getting the Job
During my unemployment, I had a contact in product development in the company, that I would periodically “ping” for upcoming opportunities. During one of these phone calls, the person asked me if I might be interested in a position in manufacturing engineering. Being hungry, I said yes, and he put me in contact with the person hiring.
The interview process was very odd. I have never walked into an interview less-qualified for a position. The job description described things like “gage studies”, “capability studies”, “capacity planning”, “failure modes and effects analysis”, “design of experiments”, so I learned what these things were, but I had never used them, nor did I know how to do them. Nonetheless, the interviewers liked my enthusiasm and hired me. Oddly enough, a few years later I interviewed for a similar position working with a similar product, and I didn’t get an offer because I didn’t know one small aspect of the business.
Probably the best thing you could do to prepare for a position as a manufacturing engineer is to obtain a lean-six sigma certification.
What the Work Was Like
In school, I got my impression what physics was all about when I took Newtonian mechanics. My world was turned sideways when I had to stretch this definition when I took thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. Instead of studying the motion of a single body and expressing it terms of intrinsic variables like momentum and kinetic energy, we talked about the collective behavior of many bodies, and described them in terms of extrinsic variables like entropy and temperature. This is an appropriate analogy to the comparison of design and manufacturing engineering.
The main concern of a manufacturing engineer is eliminating waste. Waste can take the form of defects, overprocessing, overproduction, inventory, waiting, motion, or transport. Work usually focuses on the wastes that affect yield, namely defects and overprocessing. Nominally, the design of a product has been proven to give adequate yields before it has been released to manufacturing, so if yields vary it is due to process changes. Manufacturing engineers control yields through process controls such as work instructions, operator training, metrology, databases, and statistical analysis.
Often the emphasis is on maintaining/improving yields, but the most important contribution of a manufacturing engineer is getting the product line up and running during a yield excursion. I was responsible for a product line that produced $60K/day in product in a single shift. When my line went down, it cost the company $7.5K per hour – and the pressure was on me to get it up and running. Unlike product development, where you search for an optimal design, a manufacturing engineer must find a root cause to a problem – much like a detective solves a case. There is a lot of stress when this happens, so expect long hours and sleepless nights when this happens.
Manufacturing engineering doesn’t have the glamour of design engineering, because it is more maintenance than inventiveness. In companies with low product volume, the efficiency improvements of a manufacturing engineer may not make the position economically viable. Nonetheless, when a process improvement is made, it saves the company money for as long as that product is being made. In one company I worked for, a 2 person manufacturing engineering team was able to recover $2M per year in cost savings! Personally, I have felt great satisfaction doing this work because I feel I have been able to take the companies I work for to a whole new level of manufacturing excellence. Being an extrovert, I like spending time with all sorts of different people with extremely varied backgrounds. I also find the technical challenges are significant, giving me plenty of opportunity to exercise the Ph.D. on things such as process optimization problems, which I find very rewarding.
A good manufacturing engineer will have initiative, be able to see the “big picture” but at the same time be able to focus on important details, be able to apply quantitative statistics, be people oriented, and be “hands-on”. Initiative is important because manufacturing engineers are not usually driven by projects or hard goals. I have seen unmotivated individuals in this position sit on their behinds and get little done. While they can get away with this for a while, it eventually catches up with them and they don’t end up holding that job for long. A big picture view is important because while there are usually many things that can be done to improve product manufacturability, only a few will be very effective, and it is important to have the skills to choose high return activities. Detail orientation is critical because reasons for yield excursions are almost always subtle, and you need to have intimate knowledge of a process to be able to find them. As with most engineering positions, the ability to quantitatively express/tolerance/understand a problem separates a good engineer from a mediocre engineer. Being both people oriented and hands-on is essential. Operators are usually unskilled workers with a high-school education. In order for them to build a complex product correctly, a manufacturing engineer needs to be able to train them, have good documentation in place to help them, earn their trust and respect by working with them closely and knowing the manufacturing process better than they do. While there is usually a lot of pressure from management to do paperwork, I find good manufacturing engineers are on the floor everyday anywhere from 10% to 50% of their time at work.
- Provides an opportunity for personal growth in process development & control.
- The work does not usually require travel – so it isn’t difficult for family life.
- It is fun to work with a wide variety of individuals.
- Technical challenges in terms of optimization and problem solving can be significant and interesting.
- When the line experiences a yield excursion, stress and time commitment can spike.
- Often additional training is required in terms of a lean six-sigma certification to be able to land a job.
- The job is not particularly glamorous