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A passenger happened to notice that some screws were missing from the wing before takeoff.

Have you noticed the steady increase in mistakes and mechanical failures lately? Particularly in the airline industry?

Passengers notice screws missing from wings. Windows popping out. Tires literally falling off before takeoff.

It’s no secret that I’ve been involved in the technical fields of design and manufacturing, and I definitely have some thoughts on where the problem lies. And I don’t see it getting better anytime soon.

I remember the extreme care that was taken to ensure that I completed my apprenticeship back in 1983. Besides being constantly mentored by experienced craftsmen, I also attended the required night school classes related to my trade. Upon graduation, it took me another three years of working before I was considered to “top-rate” tool & die maker. Add to that the fact that most of my middle-class buddies – including myself – drove cars that were built in the 60’s. We did our own tune-ups and brake jobs. Most of us had a pretty decent set of tools by the time that we were 16. In other words, some were exposed to some basic mechanics before we left high school.

In my opinion, the problem comes from two sources: the lack of smart kids who want to work with their hands, and the introduction of engineering software that makes it incredibly easy to “design” new parts and products. Before I’m accused of being the “old guy” yelling at a cloud, let me explain:

First of all, I use AutoCAD almost every single day at work, and I’d be lost without it. It saves me so much time when making quick sketches and figuring out math problems. But I also have almost a half-century of practical experience that allows me to apply that knowledge to my designs. It’s interesting to note – in my case – most of the designers and engineers that I worked with for most of my career worked their way into the design room off of the shop floor. At that point, they had the basics of machining and assembly mastered and were excellent designers. Very few had engineering degrees. Yes, those are definitely needed for some practices such as configuring the strength of materials and elasticity – think building bridges – but even then it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for an engineering genius to work out in the field for a few years before actually designing jet airlanes and infrastructure.

For my part, I do take the time to mentor our young engineers and help them understand what we need on the shop floor. I can tell if they’re listening or not if I see the same mistakes and errors on their next set of drawings. Again, the issue here is automation: computer-aided design allows today’s engineers to quickly construct 3D models of their designs. But without mentoring and supervision, the parts as designed aren’t going to fit together properly if they don’t understand basic manufacturing processes and their limits.

As for the lack of smart kids getting into the trades, well that’s an entirely different issue. By now, I would hope that most parents would understand that most manufacturing plants aren’t the greasy, dirty shops that their fathers worked in. Today’s manufacturing is clean and much more efficient due to the introduction of CNC machining centers that were introduced during the 1980’s. But manufacturing took a big hit here in the early 2000’s, and I can’t blame parents for not wanting their kids to be stuck in a job where they watched their family members and friends lose good-paying jobs after 30 or 40 years of work.

Here’s some food for thought: I’ve always considered tool & die-making as the “Cadillac” of the trades. I happened to stop by a local tool shop here in Erie a few years ago, and as I walked around it was glaringly apparent that everyone there was my age. Literally in their late 50’s and early 60’s. No apprentices. I have no idea how they survive another 10 years.

I understand the reluctance of most manufacturers to spend four years training someone in a state-approved apprenticeship, only to be certified and leave for more money. That used to happen all of the time here in Erie, but it really wasn’t a problem because every shop was training and graduating new certified toolmakers. There was a steady supply. Now, there is no supply. At my company, the last apprentice that we trained for four years left to take a desk job in sales at another company.

Because I’ve been involved in manufacturing for so long as a tool & die maker, it’s actually funny that we’ve been at the forefront of automation since the turn of the century: we build the molds and dies that mass-produce almost everything that you touch every day. From your ballpoint pen to your toaster, coffee maker, and car our fingerprints are everywhere. While automation and CNC machining have certainly helped the process, the dirty little secret here is that most dies and molds require expert assembly and troubleshooting before they are 100% ready for production. And that just cannot be automated. It takes many years of training to understand how to expertly assemble a complicated mold or die so that it performs correctly.

I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years, and the only solution that I can come up with is this:

It might be time for several local companies to come together and create a short but intense hands-on post-graduate course for their new engineering hires. I’m thinking even something as simple as a six-week course where 5-6 students work in a supervised environment to build a simple project together which would include assembling it at the end. No CNC machines – less cost – just learning the basics of design, milling, drilling, turning, measurement, and assembly. The cost would be minimal to set up, and it needs to be supervised by someone with a lot of experience, patience and knows how to teach. In fact, I happen to know a guy.

It would have to be in a separate facility because most shop owners are paranoid about other “spies” in their plants. It’s funny, but I get it.

Until some care is devoted to solving this problem, more mechanical failures are coming in our immediate future. Don’t be surprised. God only knows how much experience the people who are in charge of inspecting our bridges, tunnels, railroad tracks, and other critical infrastructure have. Hopefully, more experience than the airline industry seems to have at this point.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.


Phil Kerner

Phil Kerner

Phil Kerner is a life-long Erie, Pennsylvania resident. Married to The Queen, father of four sons, grandfather to Gracie Mae.