When a device works well, you probably put little thought into how it was made, let alone how thousands upon thousands of them were made. There is plenty of public emphasis put on design — but figuring out how to replicate something at scale is an engineering feat unto itself.
To learn a little about the work that goes into manufacturing, we spoke with a young engineer who previously worked for a commercial electronics manufacturer and is now building electronics that will be sent to space. (Unsurprisingly, the quality standards for space travel are a little more stringent!)
First, tell us a little about your current position and how long you’ve been at it. Basically, what does a manufacturing engineer like you do?
I’m a manufacturing engineer in electronics manufacturing at a major government contractor within their space division. I’m pretty new to the game: I worked at a small commercial electronics manufacturer for less than a year, then I jumped on an opportunity at this current company and I’ve been here for half a year. I’m no expert, but hopefully this helps anyone interested in this field.
Manufacturing engineers support the manufacturing floor, which includes the following:
- From the engineering drawings, manufacturing engineers create plans and instructions that detail exactly how to build hardware with the tools and machinery out on the floor. Think LEGO instructions, but a lot more complex.
- Manufacturing engineers also work floor support. The fabricators (hourly laborers) who work on hardware (our products) come to us with any questions or problems they might have: issues with their machinery, issues with the hardware, questions on work instructions, basically anything. Manufacturing engineers solve the problems on the floor to keep product moving.
- Manufacturing engineers program all the machinery used to work on hardware. This isn’t actual programming/coding, but simply telling the machine what to do and saving those settings and programmed actions. Most of the simpler automation equipment take in X,Y, and Z coordinates and certain actions to execute at each point (i.e. move nozzle here, spray here, move nozzle up to avoid knocking off parts, etc).
- We also look for ways to improve processes. Automation is king in manufacturing. Machines usually don’t make mistakes (although I’ve had some conveyors drop boards…)
- And we do a surprising amount of paperwork.
- We find, research, and test/validate new machinery and equipment for the floor. I got the chance to fly out to a company to test a brand new machine we were interested in, for example.
- We are responsible for finding new equipment, proving that it would benefit the company via a ROI analysis (will we get our investment back?), and validating that the machine is as good as they claim.
What drove you to choose your career path? How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
I studied industrial engineering in college. I had a hard time finding a job and accepted one related to software. I felt that I was wasting my degree, so a year and a half later I left for a commercial electronics manufacturing job. I had a friend who worked there so he submitted my resume. I found out about an opening with the government contractor through another friend and sent my resume to his friend at that company. Somehow I got the job… extremely lucky.
Connections and networking are surprisingly useful. Don’t underestimate them!
Did you need any licenses or certifications?
No, but if you’re interested I passed my Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. Not at all necessary, but I’m sure that didn’t hurt.
What are your average work hours?
The average work hours are anywhere from 9 to 12+. Manufacturing uses shifts. There are 24 hours in a day and you can be sure that most manufacturers intend to squeeze in as many hours as possible.
1st shift is 6am to 3pm, which is surprisingly great. 2nd shift is 3pm to 12am. Some companies use a third shift which is 10pm to 6am. 2nd shift and 3rd shift pay a bit more since you sacrifice your social life. Oh and there’s weekend coverage. Manufacturing can be a grind, but you gain a ton of experience.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?
Commercial and space are wildly different fields within electronics manufacturing. When I was in commercial we focused on quantity. We looked to increase throughput by reducing cycle times in terms of minutes or seconds, because we built hundreds of boards a day. In space electronics manufacturing, everything is slower and much more deliberate. Quality is paramount.
What’s the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
Commercial electronics manufacturing is a tough business, especially with almost everything already moved to China. At the small commercial company, money was tight. I didn’t always have the tools required for the job. Requesting new equipment and tools involved a lot of red tape. I hate red tape.
Weekend coverage sucks, but at least it’s a chill day where you provide a bit of support and catch up on paperwork.
What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?
I’m helping build things that go into space!
At the last job, helping the fabricators and solving problems was my favourite part. I was tight with a lot of those guys. They are some of the hardest working people I’ve met.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
Question the status quo, especially if the answer is “that’s how we’ve always done it.” Look for ways to automate processes. Learn IPC [a set of standardizations in electronic production and assembly] for commercial and and J-STD specifications for space; these dictate the standards on circuit boards. Six sigma and other efficiency mantras are something to keep in mind.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Career Spotlight is an interview series on Lifehacker that focuses on regular people and the jobs you might not hear much about — from doctors to plumbers to aerospace engineers and everything in between.