The labor shortage of skilled tradesmen in pipefitting, welding, electrical and machinists is well-documented throughout the United States. Older generations of skilled tradesmen are entering retirement much faster than they can be replaced. One statistic indicates that over 50 percent of skilled-trade workers in the U.S. are 50 years old and older, and nearly 20 percent are over 60.
At Optimation we design and fabricate manufacturing systems for companies all over the United States and the world. To build this equipment, we use a lot of steel and stainless steel and lesser amounts of aluminum and exotic alloys. A couple months ago, the rules changed when getting prices for these commodity items. Many of our suppliers began to provide pricing which was good for only 24 hours. This reaction by our suppliers was created by threats of tariffs being placed on steel and aluminum.
This post originally ran in the Automation World CSIA Blog.
Recent advances in technology have made it possible for manufacturers to build processing lines that will create products faster, cheaper and of higher quality. Many of the new technologies have moved so quickly that they are considered disruptive in the changes they make to manufacturing processes. But new technology doesn’t come without a cost.
Monday April 16, 2018 was Patriots Day in Boston. The weather was abysmal; 37 degrees, pouring rain, headwinds of up to 20 miles per hour. It was the worst weather ever for a Boston Marathon. But the BAA and Bostonians were determined to make it one of the best marathons ever. I arrived in Hopkinton on a school bus like twenty thousand other runners. By the time we got there the field was already standing mud. We squeezed into a large tent along with thousands of others. Inside volunteers were doing what little they could to make runners comfortable. They gave us a sheet of Mylar to sit on and some energy gels. We weren’t out of the rain long before it was time for the 45-minute walk to the starting corrals and the run to downtown Boston.
At Optimation we design and fabricate many skid systems. These systems are used by manufacturers for a broad variety of applications. Skids can be built as carts, in frames, in shipping containers or trailers. They can be built as prefab production lines units that can be bolted together to form larger systems. Physical layout can be tailored to the complexity, geography and environmental conditions the skid needs to perform in. Some are mounted indoors in factory conditions, others may ultimately be located in the arctic, or on an offshore oil platform. Applications also vary. Some are used for chemical delivery or small scale chemical processing. Others have been used for hydrogen distribution, high pressure test systems, food processing or testing medical devices. Skid systems have the advantage of being built in a shop in controlled conditions and then installed in remote or challenging locations.
By the time I was nine or ten I knew I was going to be an engineer. By then everyone in my family, and everyone else, I knew also knew I was going to be an engineer. I have three brothers. They all became engineers. Maybe there is something genetic about becoming an engineer. Or perhaps it is environmental and we are taught from an early age. I am not certain about the cause, but I do know that I have enjoyed the practice of engineering from the time I began my career until now. There is something exciting about cause and effect, about creating things that work, and about applied science in general.
Getting employees to follow the rules, even rules that keep them safe, is difficult. For some segments of the population this seems impossible. Everyone knows, for example, that talking on a cell phone while driving is dangerous, and against the law in most states. But a large percentage of the population continue to talk on a handheld phone while driving anyway. This is even more true of texting and driving. And accidents and deaths continue.
At Optimation we’ve been engaged in many renewable energy projects over the past few decades. Early on much of the focus was the production of ethanol as an alternate fuel. Most of the early production was from corn. Many states, like New York, mandated that commercial gasoline be blended with ten percent ethanol. There were some unintended consequences of these original plants. The large demand for corn, to convert to ethanol, caused disruptions in the food supply. There were also unanticipated maintenance issues for many using ethanol blended gas to power lawn mowers and other small engines.
I am a registered member of the Sons of the American Revolution. Two of my ancestors were enlisted as privates in the Pennsylvania Militia and fought in the Revolutionary War under General Washington. Before enlisting in the army, they were farmers. This was true of most others who fought with them. At the time of the revolution, America was primarily an agricultural society. Farms and farmers were the primary producers of wealth for the colonies. Manufactured goods were imported from England and paid for with the currency gained from the sale of farmed commodities.