In a tumultuous year, a call to action for plant engineers

William Rothfelder, the commercial research division manager for Inland Steel, sounded disheartened when looking at the global market for his product: “Our industry is doing all it can, including investing huge amounts of capital, to cope with the import problem,” he said. “And we are fighting a losing battle unless we get help from the government.

04/15/2007


William Rothfelder, the commercial research division manager for Inland Steel, sounded disheartened when looking at the global market for his product:

“Our industry is doing all it can, including investing huge amounts of capital, to cope with the import problem,” he said. “And we are fighting a losing battle unless we get help from the government. There are well-documented reasons for our predicament, such as surplus world steel capacity, lower foreign labor costs and dumping.”

And then there was this from management consultant Jerome Barnum: “Computers can become devices to allow us to make the same old mistakes, but we can do it faster,” he said “Top executives get enamored with the hardware and too often forget all that they have bought or rented is a tool and this has to be used by human beings.”

These are considered solid manufacturing observations in 2007. In 1968, when these words first appeared in PLANT ENGINEERING magazine, they were visionary. They are still applicable today.

The year 1968 was among the most tumultuous in American history. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated within four months of each other. War protestors rioted in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention. A new counterculture was rising out of the unrest.

When you look back at that time in the pages of PLANT ENGINEERING , however, the manufacturing work and the challenges plant managers faced haven’t changed that much. The technology is different; but the work goes on.

Take Western Electric’s decision to build a new cable plant in Phoenix. Their problem: the local supply of skilled labor was inadequate. “Here was a challenge which required a new approach: Set up a training program for a combination machinist and machine repairman during the construction of a new plant,” said V.C. Bond of Western Electric in the August 8, 1968 issue.

That’s a strategy now in common practice, especially in companies adding new production lines or new manufacturing processes.

The issues discussed in the Oct. 31, 1968 issue of PLANT ENGINEERING are pointed at the same kind of issues faced today: efficiency, productivity and planning. The cover feature talked about how the plant engineering function had been decentralized at Armstrong Cork Co.’s Lancaster, PA plant. Today that business is Armstrong World Industries, makers of flooring and tile products.

Other features included a look at the importance of active planning in maintenance scheduling, the idea that pre-heating fuel oil can increase combustion efficiency, a look at linear motor bearings and targeting elevator maintenance programs at plant profitability.

Maintenance editor Ralph Jansen concluded the year in December by noting another familiar problem we face yet today: labor shortages. “At least 75,000 new maintenance employees will be needed next year in the mechanical trades alone. Of this number, more than 56,000 will have no previous maintenance training whatsoever,” Jansen wrote. “If your company encourages or permits training on the job, you are halfway home. If not, it’s time to take a stand.”

Encouraging readers to act on what they read has always been a recurring theme of the magazine %%MDASSML%% never more so at this juncture. As Dr. Charles F. Jones, president of Humble Oil (today, part of ExxonMobil) noted at the time, “I am convinced if our formidable urban and other large-scale social problems are to be solved enduringly and with the most effective utilization of our limited financial resources, the engineer must reassert his capabilities in a leading rather than a supporting role.”





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