Career Overview: Manufacturing and Production

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Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012
Overview
Without manufacturing and production, there'd be no products to market or sell. Accountants wouldn't have anything to account for. The retail trade would collapse. Programmers would be without computers to program on. In short, there'd by very little need for any other career.

In this career profile, WetFeet focuses on outlining the technical jobs in manufacturing and production, with an emphasis on high-tech industries. See our career profile on operations management for information about operational responsibilities outside of manufacturing and production.

What It Is
Manufacturing and production are relatively interchangeable terms for making a product, including all of the processes involved in making it. All products are manufactured and produced. The clothes you wear, books you read, and computers you use were manufactured. So were the textiles for the clothes, the paper for the books, and the components of the computers.

People who work in manufacturing and production don't just create products; they create them as quickly as possible, as inexpensively as possible, and in the necessary quantities. Those working in manufacturing and production know that time is money: The faster and better that they and the machines around them work, the better their companies perform.

It doesn't matter if you're producing silicon chips or Pokemon toys. The manufacturing challenge is to develop better production processes, secure the right material and component supplies at the least cost, reduce production time, eliminate waste, and ensure quality in the final product.

What You'll Do
While the introduction of industrial automation technology has reduced the number of blue collar and semiskilled positions in manufacturing, the evolution of the manufacturing process itself has opened up a wide range of opportunities for technicians, mechanical and electrical engineers, industrial designers, and managers.

As production lines become less labor intensive, they depend more on computers, sensors, and robotics. Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) handle what human hands used to do in the past, and step-by-step production control is left to sequencing equipment that controls the production flow.

But PLCs are just the beginning: Sophisticated robots and "intelligent" computer software programs can now run entire factories, and skilled programmers and software engineers are required to develop human-machine interfaces (HMIs), which allow robots to communicate with their human masters. That may sound like science fiction, but some of the most advanced technology on earth is now used to produce vast quantities of consumer goods and industrial products for an exploding global economy.

As companies move their production centers around the globe, experienced production professionals are needed to direct overseas plant construction and equipment installation and to train local technicians and engineers. As trade barriers and tariffs fall, the sourcing of necessary components and subassemblies has become an international enterprise. Production managers, process engineers, and others involved in manufacturing travel extensively to qualify foreign suppliers or introduce new systems and techniques to their international subsidiaries.

Who Does Well
Manufacturing and production professionals today are highly skilled, mission-critical employees in an area where time is money. To succeed, you'll need technical skills, attention to detail, and the creativity to improve processes. You'll also need to be able to endure stress, as management demands new ways to produce new and old goods faster and cheaper.

Within the firms are a gaggle of opportunities in technical and nontechnical disciplines. Though many companies hire all majors, some are definitely engineering-driven, with marketing and other functions taking their cues from the people in engineering. Requirements
For most manufacturing and production positions, a BS in a relevant engineering field is required. That could mean mechanical, electrical, chemical, or manufacturing, depending on the product being made.

Generally, lower-level and entry-level positions may require a 2-year degree, and most require specialized knowledge and training on specific types of PLC and/or computer platforms, such as the Allen-Bradley, Mitsubishi, or Toshiba systems. Certificate courses in programmable logic controller systems are available at most community colleges, and the PLC manufacturers themselves offer courses through their dealers and distributors. Job Outlook
To paraphrase Orwell, some manufacturing sectors are more equal than others. Mature industry segments have been exported overseas for many years. Overall, the manufacturing industry is not growing in the United States. Within the industry, many sectors, such as aerospace and defense and the automobile industry are undergoing continued consolidation. During the recent recession, companies underwent significant headcount reductions.

Bright spots abound, though, and they tend to be exceptionally bright. Areas such as medical manufacturing and specialty electronics manufacturing have been growing steadily. While the manufacturing industry as a whole couldn't be said to be booming, the outlook is much more sanguine than for many other industries. Similarly, as the economy recovers, the industry will likely trend up along with it. For job seekers, especially recent college graduates, the outlook appears decent. Manufacturing companies still appear to be hiring, albeit at a tempered pace. Career Tracks
Many people enter the manufacturing and production arena with an engineering degree, usually in mechanical or electrical engineering, though many universities are offering specialized degree programs in manufacturing engineering, process engineering, and robotics.

As with many technology areas, job titles in manufacturing may vary from company to company. Roles can become highly technical and specialized. The following descriptions refer to typical positions with common types of responsibilities.

Test Engineer
A test engineer is the stickler of the manufacturing group. Here your job is to create and run simulations to find problems in a manufacturing process. Senior positions in this area offer opportunities to explore new ways of doing things: for example, rerouting conveyor belts or switching or resequencing various production steps to enhance the process. A BS or MS in electrical, chemical, or mechanical engineering is usually required.

Robotics Engineer
Robotics engineers are the eggheads of the production process. Robotics is a highly technical field, and robot-enabled production lines are extremely capital intensive. New technology is always emerging to make the most of that investment, and robotics engineers need to understand the entire robotic process, from software design to mechanical operation. Such jobs generally require an MS or a PhD in a technical, scientific, or engineering field.

Systems and Controls Engineer
Systems and controls engineers need to be expert computer programmers, able to design and maintain the equipment that technicians use to interface with the manufacturing equipment-the human-machine interface, or HMI. Being a systems or controls engineer requires a BS in engineering, as well as excellent computer and software-programming skills. Experience is a must: You need to know how manufacturing engineers think and how the machines work, and then design a way for the two to interact.

Process Engineer
The process engineer is the link between product design and production. Process engineers work with manufacturing engineers and design engineers during the product development process to make sure that the product being designed can be manufactured effectively from both a technical and a financial standpoint. There is a good deal of paperwork and administration involved, as process engineering involves much coordination and communication. Usually, a BS or MS in electrical or mechanical engineering is required.

Manufacturing Engineer
Manufacturing engineers are often managers who oversee several technicians and are responsible for maintaining a specific part of the manufacturing process. You may also review product and process designs for manufacturing feasibility and be expected to recommend improvements to product quality and production, based on your direct experience on the line. Manufacturing engineers usually have a BS in mechanical or electrical engineering or in manufacturing engineering.

Senior Manufacturing Engineer
In this position, you are tasked with developing and designing the manufacturing process, using your knowledge and experience in manufacturing and your engineering expertise to design and build the most cost-effective means to produce a product. This is an extremely high-profile position. Experience counts more than education, but an MS in a relevant engineering field is usually desired.

Director of Manufacturing
In a large organization, the director of manufacturing may oversee several production facilities and command a large staff. In other cases, the director of manufacturing may be responsible for managing contract manufacturers, selecting the best production facilities, and communicating with the contractors to make sure that production rates, quotas, and cost targets are met. Most positions require an MS in an appropriate engineering field as well as 5 or more years of relevant experience as a manufacturing engineer or systems/controls engineer.

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