While in class a few days back, I watched an old Chaplin film. Lack of audio really pulls you into the cinematics of the production. Created in 1936, Modern Times shows a factory floor at that time. With a Charlie Chaplin twist!
Charlie is a production line worker, working side by side with a few other folks. He is quick to get on the line and get to work. Aligning knobs on components is his task. One by one he twists the knobs with a wrench in each hand. You can see how his muscle memory takes over and the tasks seem to get completed with little thought and insight. Before too long, he becomes lost in his work and can’t keep up. He is moved to another task so as not to negatively impact the production process. You can probably visualize how the movie goes from here.
Fast forward to 2017. Personally working in machine shops for the last 25 years, I am sure my perspective is different than my classmates. I will take a swag at the differences anyway. As equipment has gotten more sophisticated, so has the technical requirements of both the leadership as well as the workers.
When I started in industry, there were still a fair amount of jobs requiring a diverse skill set in manual machining. Many shops had CNC equipment but they all had a manual lathe and mill. Cranking handles is whee you learn the fundamentals of how a tool cuts metal. You also learn to plan ahead. Each steps relies on how well you executed the previous move. Like a game of chess but with a block of metal. As CNC became more easily available for smaller shops the business continued to change. Machines went from 2 axis lathes and 3 axis mills to palletized 5 axis machining centers with 300+ tools! The machines are complex, sophisticated, accurate and command a high level of focus. With this specialization has also changed. Years ago you needed a broad base of knowledge. You may be milling in the morning and turning in the afternoon, planning you own steps along the way.
Now, the equipment does more and the machinist does less. Or so it appears on the surface. That is not necessarily the case once you dig in. Yes, the equipment can be run and monitored by a different skill set than years ago, but the technical skills of those doing the programming, set up, process development, quality requirements have changed to more thought based skills. Complex geometry, trigonometry, algebra, cartesian coordinates and computer knowledge are all required to be successful in sophisticated and demand environment.