Mfg. Engineering

My thoughts on being in manufacturing for 40+ years.

I could talk about all the technology, but it is constantly changing.  That is part of the fun.   I will focus on working, business and learning in manufacturing.

What I have seen as significant information from the thousands of presentations, meetings, journals, books and sales propaganda that I have been through in 40 years. 

Reading and general information   Priority order for the first 3.

  1.  “The Capability Gap”   Papers by  Dr  Nelson Repenning,  MIT Sloan School of Management,  Why focusing on the short term profits can lead to long term failure.
  2. "The Skunk Works", Benjamin Dover get and read the book.
    1.   Listen more than you talk
    2. Make a decision
    3. Kill problems don’t wound them
    4.  Take a decision to management, not a problem.
    5. 2/3 Harvard Business School=BS
    6. and many more
  3. "When the Machine Stopped: A Cautionary Tale from Industrial America" (Harvard Business School Press, 1989). Max Holland   Manufacturing is cyclic and takes knowledgeable leadership and work. There is no single business formula for success."
  4. "Moments of Truth", Jan Carlzon   Modern leaders needs to provide resources and keep people on track for company goals, not make all the decisions for them.
  5. “Quality is Free” and “Quality is still Free”  Philip B Cosby  Also Juran, Krenski and Demming.  The foundation of quality. 
  6. "The Unwritten Laws of Engineering"  by W. J. King and James Skakoon.   Good for anyone in a technical profession.  All those things they don't teach you about the workplace in school.  This has been around since 1944 and has follow up books and many commentaries online.
  7. "Marine, the Life of Chesty Puller."  You can’t lead what you don’t know.  Keep thinking and adapt.
  8. "Calculus Made Easy", Silvanus Thompson, Martin Gardner.  The introduction on learning how to learn is worth having the book.   Mine was an old copy that went with a tornado.   Get a good well-done version for the symbols to be clear. 
  9. "Six Sigma" as originally taught by Motorola, not what is has devolved into in some areas.   The original Six Sigma taught high yield and quality was a result of design and cooperation with manufacturing.   Those that believe Six Sigma is only a shop thing don’t understand quality or Six Sigma.  
  10. If you wait for the numbers to tell you what to do, it is too late.   The numbers tell you if you are making good decisions. Lee Iacoca.


Engineering schools usually have 1 class that is under taught and overloaded.  This is intentional.  It is to weed out those that won’t work to learn.  A fundamental skill needed in any engineering job.

Find teachers with real-world experience.    Those that worked in the job.

Avoid cult teachers.  Those that want you to think their way and only their way. 

First day of class.  Read the chapter, list your questions before class.  If the teacher can’t answer the question in a way that improves your understanding, consider an alternate teacher.  Run from those that can only quote the book.  Easier to do in General Ed classes vs. a major course.

One of the high value classes I took in college.   “Beginning Argument and Reason”.  Training your mind to handle problems logically.

All good learning is valuable.  Example, algebra for analyzing political statements.  You will find many politicians exaggerate the data to inane values.

Balance study, exercise and life.  100% study can numb the mind.  Learn how to learn.   How do I explain it?  It’s like breathing.  When you want to learn like you want to breath after holding your breath for 2 minutes, you will learn.  

Boredom is usually a lack of imagination on your part.

Learn the basics of programming.  Software is a fundamental tool today.

Keep learning up to date, not everything taught in the past is correct.   Example, economists in the 1990's taught that manufacturing would be of little long term economic value.  They were 100% wrong.  Manufacturing is a key to our economy.   Ask Germany and China if it is valuable.   Sadly many that were taught in this era are now the leaders of business.  

Other thoughts

When you don’t understand how it will be manufactured, you can’t design it well.

Understand technology and avoid the hype.   Additive was mostly hype initially.  After 30 years it is just beginning to become a new production capability.  It will not replace everything.

See my software rules.  They have some humor, but too often true.

Lead people, manage resources, don’t confuse the two.

In 20 years, some people have 20 years of experience, while others have 1 years’ experience 20 times.  Know who is who.

“You can make it fool proof, but you can’t make it damn fool proof”  Jess Mills

Japan didn’t invent quality, they have been determined to implement it.

Many Japanese manufacturing methods are common sense wrapped in a catch phrase. 

Don’t separate truth and business.  Compare new business ideals to gospel principles, if they line up there is a good chance of success.  If not, there is a good chance of failure.

Ask the Lord for help in learning, specific learning.   You will be amazed how fast you can learn.

When you stop learning, it is over.

Be patient, if you can’t persuade any other way, predict failure and wait for it to happen. 

Always have a plan to spend funds when available.

When working with management be specific.  Shotgun approaches don’t work.  It may take several months carefully and repeatedly pointing out a problem before they accept it as a priority.   If they think it is their idea, OK.

Project length:  6 months great, 1 year good, 18 months possibly.   More than 18 months to finish a project, have your resume ready. 

A few more hours planning may save months on the shop floor.    “If I only had an hour to save the world, I would use the first 55 minutes defining the problem” Einstein.

Risk is risky.  If you expect risky decisions to work 100% of the time, you don’t understand risk.  Just know when there is failure and act.

If you never take a risk, you will never learn to succeed.

10-20% of the people will be left behind when there is a major technology change.  Either they can’t move up with the technology or won’t.   It is usually won’t.  

Take charge of your work.  Take the boss a decision if needed, solve the problem first.

When you change or upgrade technology, stop using the old system or process.  Get everyone on the new system immediately.   If you maintain an old system or process, you will tie up your most experienced and valuable people maintaining something that is obsolete.

The primary purpose of a consulting group is to tell management what their employees are saying.

Learn to talk management.  Use short stories as parables to help them remember.  Example : "we are going tortoise speed racing against a rabbit being chased by a coyote."  Use cost benefits, so you can get what you need.    Part of your job is training management on the results of decisions.

Six sigma quality is the primary responsibility of the designer, not the shop.  True six sigma emphasized designing to capability.  Not adding more analysis and measuring tools to the shop.  If engineering is pushing the frontier, they need to pay for the manufacturing R&D, research and development. 

Watching and tracking costs will never reduce costs.   Improving the process is the only way to reduce costs.

Improvement costs, but is cheaper than not improving.

It’s how much you make that matters, not what you spend.   Cheap doesn’t mean cost effective.

You can never save enough to create the future.   You must have value in the process and product it creates.

Improvement is a continual process when you are doing it correctly.   

Improvement is 1% technology , software and hardware.  99% persuasion, training and follow up.  (Thomas Edison, 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration)

When your best people fail, find out why.

Don’t be afraid of failure, only fear giving up.

Business is a “we",  not us and them. 

In a manufacturing plant the shop is not a customer, they are part of a team.  The customer is the one that pays for the product and that cost drives the process.  

A customer must be willing to pay for what they demand or they are not a customer.  

Believing "a good manager doesn’t have to understand the details of the business to succeed", is inane.   Our most revered business leaders know the details and rely on the good people under them.  It doesn't mean they micro-manage, they know the consequences of decisions on the business.

Sometimes people need to be pushed out of their comfort zone, but don’t push them into failure.   It is demoralizing.

If you go in as a beggar, you will get beggars wages.  Don’t be shy when you ask for what you need.

If it isn’t documented, it cannot be used.

Don’t blame the person for failure if there isn't a good, repeatable process.

Paying for software maintenance and then not using the new version is like buying a car and leaving it at the dealership.  Keeping everything running without interruption, does not mean it is  efficient.

Buying hardware is easy, getting permission to buy software is often hard.

Most users are buried with tactical, day to day problems.  Leaders must plan and guide into future capabilities.   

Excel and be on the leading edge of manufacturing.  Being ordinary is death in manufacturing.

The best sales people provide good service.  The worst ones only try to sell at any cost, even lying is a well used tool for them. 

General ramblings

Each person decides how much they can do and what they know by how much responsibility they are willing to take on.   There are a wide variety of people in manufacturing.   From gung ho engineers and leaders, to the clock watchers that are only there for a pay check.   Treat them all with respect.   Use everyone’s knowledge.   The clock watchers will often do jobs that will bore anyone else to tears.    Talk, listen and understand.   Often people know there is a problem, but the biggest problem is communicating concerns well.

Sometimes you have to put up with crap, but don’t get used to it. 

Running your own business  A few things from people I know that ran their own business.

When you run your own business, the boss may be a tyrant.

3 things of a successful business, Net profit, cash flow and return on investment. They seem the same but are different.  Cycle time impacts them all.

Great service and doing quality work are required for return customers. 

When I was in High School, I worked in a pharmacy.  Private one owner, one pharmacist business.  Even his son who was a pharmacist in one of the big pharmacies in the area didn't understand how he survived.  He had gone bankrupt twice and had 0 credit, but he did well.  How?  First low inventory, little cash tied up on sales.  He would sell all day and get the money.   If he didn't have enough product he would partially fill the order and we would deliver at night.  Average 20-30% of his daily sells were delivered after he had the cash.    Also he carried very little over the counter stuff.  He stated it was a sink hole in his business.   Why did it work?  His net profit was similar to others, but the ratio of money on the shelf vs. how often he sold or turned the inventory was much better than all the others.   Building footprint was small compared to customer traffic.  Cash flow was good, he had cash for the inventory and he used it to pay for daily resupply.  He had a simple system that took 20 minutes a day to re-order.   His wife was the accountant. 

Things that worked for the pharmacy.  Daily supply that was quick.  Low inventory, high turn over of inventory.  Money available to pay the bills, even if it was day to day.   High customer loyalty, he answered questions and treated all well.  Even when he was having a  bad day.

  last update Oct 5, 2022