Manufacturing Needs Knowledge Workers

  • Article by: LAURA FRENCH , Star Tribune Sales and Marketing
  • Updated: June 4, 2007 - 9:39 AM

Careers in high-tech manufacturing provide a great balance between making decisions and making things.

"People assume that technology jobs are all about sitting in a cube and staring at a computer all day," says Rick Meier, founder of Meier Tool and Engineering. "Our people are knowledge workers, and we have computers all over the place, but the people who use them are moving around inspecting parts and operating machines, as well."

Careers in high-tech manufacturing, Meier says, provide a great balance between making decisions and making things.

Tiny Parts, High Quality

On a table in Rick Meier's office in Anoka, there's a jar of tiny black particles. They look like coarsely ground pepper, but in fact they're hollow shells made of titanium, for use in cancer therapy. There are 10,000 parts in the jar. The entire contents would fit in a teaspoon.

The product in itself is amazing. Even more amazing, the parts are created by progressive metal stamping. Thin, flat strips of metal go through stamping machines at the rate of 500 strokes a minute or more. Typically, each metal strip goes through a dozen or more individual operations that cut away metal and make folds or twists in the remaining material to create a finished part.

To meet the needs of their clients in the medical device and electronics industries, precision metal stamping companies need to meet tolerances that are a quarter of the diameter of a human hair. Measuring quality must be done with microscopes, not calipers.

"How do we measure something we can't see?" asks Tony VanDanaker, manufacturing manager. "Our workers are using data to solve problems rather than observation."

Diverse Skill Sets

Creating a complex part requires a cross functional team of workers with diverse skill sets. Meier quickly lists manufacturing technicians, qualify technicians, die-makers, CNC and EDM technicians, tool designers, estimators and project managers, manufacturing engineers, and robotics and laser technicians among the roles needed in a precision stamping manufacturing operation.

Some of his employees began as apprentices right out of high school, working in several areas of the shop to gain a broad background before beginning to specialize. Other employees came in with specialized training in certain areas like computer engineering and robotics. Still others came to Meier from many other industries.

In addition to a broad understanding of manufacturing and special skills in manufacturing of precision metal stampings, Meier says, "We need to study every industry we're in. We need to know what customers are trying to achieve and what their challenges are. Customers always knows more about their product than we do, but we know more about how to manufacture the precision components."

Meier and several of his employees have taken the Mini-MBA program from the University of St. Thomas to better understand the needs of medical device customers.

Gold Collar Workers

Charles Arnold, director of the National Tooling and Machining Association's Minnesota Chapter, likes to call these high-tech manufacturing careers "gold collar workers." "Traditionally, manufacturing was a blue-collar career," he says. "These workers are still operating machines, making things, but it's as technical and scientific as many white-collar jobs."

The "gold collar" designation fits in another way. According to Arnold, manufacturing companies who are willing to innovate are "busier than ever. Many of the precision manufacturing jobs that went overseas came back, because the quality just wasn't there. Innovative manufacturing is becoming the industry the U.S. is known for."

To read Rick Meier's article, "Producing Components with Precision Technology," visit the Meier Tool and Engineering website at www.meiertool.com.


Laura French is principal of Words Into Action, Inc., and is a freelance writer from Roseville.
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