Industry's Image Issue

Author Michael Deren
July 01, 2016 - 12:15am

The results from a recent SME survey of parents about their views relating to careers in manufacturing showed they do not have accurate information about the opportunities a manufacturing career offers. 

For example, more than 20 percent view manufacturing as an outdated and/or dirty work environment. 

I can’t believe people still think of manufacturing plants as dirty, dark and dangerous environments to work in. They must have watched too many movies where robots touch off welders with huge spark displays as tremendous noise fills unlit expanses where stuff is piled up, ready to topple on unsuspecting workers.

Maybe that’s how manufacturing was in the old days. When I first started, I worked in a shop that had old, wood-cobblestone floors soaked with excess oil from the machines. Walk at your own risk! The machines had virtually no guarding and would spray cutting oil at the drop of a hat. 

You had to be tough in those days. It seemed like shop workers followed the motto for postal employees: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” 

In the winter, snow came through the overhead doors, and the only heat was from the machinery motors. When it rained, the roof leaked. In the summer, the heat in the shop was almost unbearable. Within minutes, you would be drenched as if you were in a sauna and could pass out from heatstroke. The shop was so dark, workers couldn’t tell if it was day or night. Nonetheless, we completed our work.

Then in the mid-1980s, I visited a farm-implement manufacturer in Iowa to train an operator how to use and program two chucker lathes it purchased from the company I worked for. The manufacturer was modernizing its large plant, basically by updating its CNC machines and establishing work cells. The facility also had a few other CNC machines. The contrast was stark; shiny, new CNC machine tools in the vast darkness of a 100-year-old plant.

Fast-forward 30 years, and manufacturers have temperature-controlled shops, LED lighting throughout their plants, well-guarded machines with built-in sound reduction, pristine shop floors without a drop of coolant and epoxy-painted, antislip floors with marked forklift and walking aisles. In addition, computers are at almost every machine to download or upload programs. Some machines have diagnostics built into their controls. Many places have robots tending machines to load and unload parts, and some plants have automated, guided vehicles traveling around to move products. When workers walk by parts washers filled with aqueous solutions, they smell citrus and not solvents. When someone somehow gets dirty, he’s jokingly asked if he was playing outside.

The days of the dirty, dingy, dark and dangerous manufacturing plant are pretty much over. 

According to the SME survey, an estimated 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will be available in the next 10 years. The catch is more than 2 million of those jobs will go unfilled. It’s our job to show parents what manufacturing is really like.

Related Glossary Terms

  • computer numerical control ( CNC)

    computer numerical control ( CNC)

    Microprocessor-based controller dedicated to a machine tool that permits the creation or modification of parts. Programmed numerical control activates the machine’s servos and spindle drives and controls the various machining operations. See DNC, direct numerical control; NC, numerical control.

  • coolant


    Fluid that reduces temperature buildup at the tool/workpiece interface during machining. Normally takes the form of a liquid such as soluble or chemical mixtures (semisynthetic, synthetic) but can be pressurized air or other gas. Because of water’s ability to absorb great quantities of heat, it is widely used as a coolant and vehicle for various cutting compounds, with the water-to-compound ratio varying with the machining task. See cutting fluid; semisynthetic cutting fluid; soluble-oil cutting fluid; synthetic cutting fluid.


Machinist's Corner Columnist

Michael Deren is a manufacturing engineer/project manager and a regular CTE contributor. He can be reached via e-mail at