By The Numbers

A conversation with my son the other day, about production at his job, made me think of some of the significant numbers I experienced at a few of my factory jobs.  I like to think that I “decided” to leave the middle management rat-race, park my brain at the punch-clock, and leave the worrying to someone else.  Reality is that I had the rug pulled out from under me by a company president with no regard for rules or business morals.  This attitude got him killed when he flew his private plane too low, to buzz some friends, and tangled with a poplar tree.

I tried outside sales, but the only companies who hired me were too small to be able to pay a living wage.  I worked in janitorial for a while.  The small company couldn’t pay enough, and, believe it or not, in the larger corporation, there was a lot of political manoeuvring.  The new site manager had a friend who needed a job and suddenly my 40 hour scheduled week was a zero hour scheduled week.  I wasn’t fired, I just had no income.  I got into security for a year or so, but it was worse than the janitorial.  I’m just not good at sucking up.

At a shoe plant, I found that the leather cutting foreman was a man I’d worked with at a skate plant, twenty-five years before.  He needed a cutting press operator, and promised better money and job security.  It lasted a little over a year before the company went belly up.  I almost got locked inside when the receivers put padlocks on the doors.

To cut leather for boots, you pull it up over a cutting platen, swing a twenty-pound cutting head out, place the die for the best use of the leather, swing the twenty-pound head back in and push two buttons.  A hydraulic pump pounds the head down, and then releases, making the cut.  Then you push out, place, pull in, repeat, repeat, repeat.

I didn’t own a motorcycle at that time, but I had read all the safety information.  Make eye contact with oncoming drivers, especially at intersections.  The wife needed the car one day, so I was riding my bicycle to work.  I was going downhill, moving almost as fast as the cars.  I saw a woman approaching the corner from the other side with her left signal on.  I made the eye contact.  She acknowledged my presence….and then turned left right in front of me.  It wasn’t even a near-miss.  I hit her right in front of the front wheel.  She climbed out and said, “I didn’t think you were going that fast.”  The bike was toast, and I high-dived over the hood, and did a right-side shoulder roll.  Other than a tender shoulder, I (thought I) was fine.  We exchanged insurance information and I got my wife to drive me to the plant.

I later figured that I did about four thousand of those push-out, pull-ins with the twenty-pound weight.  I got a ride home, went to bed, and woke up with a locked shoulder, swollen to small watermelon size.  My doctor informed me that I had separated the shoulder and only made it worse with the exercise.  Four thousand is not a happy number.

When I worked at a metal-stamping plant, the first job I had was as a cut-off press operator, chopping 20-foot pieces of small steel channel to length, for drawer slides.  I had to cut them and make sure they were neatly stacked in a bin.  This was perhaps the worst job I ever had.  The entire plant was a cacophony of noise, oil used to lubricate the cuts soaked boots and got into clothing, and the parts had razor-sharp burrs on them.  There wasn’t a night I came home without three or four little nicks and cuts.

I worked a ten-hour shift.  One night I got the same material for three different length orders.  I had got quite adept at setting up my own press quickly.  We were paid a bonus for fast work, but set-up time was paid at a shitty base rate.  Also, if I could get the parts to fall neatly into the bin, I spent more time cutting (and earning) and less time making neat.  By the end of the shift I astounded the foreman by having cut and stacked, just over thirty-one thousand parts.  I thought at the time it was a record I would never beat….until I got a job, years later, at another stamping plant.

This job was perhaps the best one I ever had.  I could sit to do the work, the steel parts were only as big as the end of my thumb, and someone else had to punch them out.  All I had to do was feed them right-side-up through a machine that sanded that slight burr off.  If one went though wrong-side up, I had to dig in a four-foot square tub and remove it.  There was zero error tolerance.  Feeding the parts correctly was important.  I have muscle-control and co-ordination problems, but the parts were small, and I have a good eye.  Again, at the end of a ten-hour shift, we calculated that I had processed Thirty-Eight Thousand of these little widgets.  The department foreman even went so far as to tell the plant manager where I, and several other employees, could hear, that no-one had ever done that many of these parts in a shift.  He said that he had workers who had been with the company for ten and fifteen years, and the best he had ever seen was eighteen thousand.  Then the 2008 recession hit, and I went looking for another job.

When I worked at the auto-part plant, it was common for people to move from job to job, some every year.  They put me on a press, cutting a firewall pad for CJ Jeeps, and I stayed with it for over seven years.  It was a Goldilocks job that no-one else liked, but I must not have been too tall, or too short, or too weak, or too strong.  I loved it.  When you sell parts to the Big Three, you don’t increase your price as labor and material costs rise.  In fact, you are supposed to find production efficiencies, and actually reduce your price each year.

When I started, we made about 350 parts/shift.  When the part finally stopped, we were making about 450 per shift.  Average 400 parts a day, times a five-day week is 2000 parts a week.  Fifty working weeks a year gives a hundred thousand parts a year.  Over seven years production means that I am responsible for almost Three-Quarters of a Million Jeeps on the road.  Man!  I get tired, just thinking about it.