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Industrial machinery mechanics, often called machinery maintenance mechanics or industrial machinery repairers, inspect, maintain, repair, and adjust industrial production and processing machinery and equipment to ensure its proper operation in various industries. There are approximately 220,000 industrial machinery mechanics employed in the United States.
Before 1750 and the beginning of the industrial revolution in Europe, almost all work was done by hand. Families grew their own food, wove their own cloth, and bought or traded very little. Gradually the economic landscape changed. Factories mass-produced products that had once been created by hand. The spinning jenny, a multiple-spindle machine for spinning wool or cotton, was one of the first machines of the industrial revolution. After it came a long procession of inventions and developments, including the steam engine, power loom, cotton gin, steamboat, locomotive, telegraph, and Bessemer converter. With these machines came the need for people who could maintain and repair them.
Mechanics learned that all machines are based on six configurations: the lever, the wheel and axle, the pulley, the inclined plane, the wedge, and the screw. By combining these elements in more complex ways, the machines could do more work in less time than people or animals could do. Thus, the role of machinery mechanics became vital in keeping production lines running and businesses profitable.
The industrial revolution continues even today, although now it's known as the Age of Automation. As machines become more numerous and more complex, the work of the industrial machinery mechanic becomes even more necessary.
The types of machinery on which industrial machinery mechanics work are as varied as the types of industries operating in the United States today. Mechanics are employed in metal stamping plants, printing plants, chemical and plastics plants, and almost any type of large-scale industrial operation that can be imagined. The machinery in these plants must be maintained regularly. Breakdowns and delays with one machine can hinder a plant’s entire operation, which is costly for the company.
Preventive maintenance is a major part of mechanics’ jobs. They inspect the equipment, oil and grease moving components, and clean and repair parts. They also keep detailed maintenance records on the equipment they service. They often follow blueprints and engineering specifications to maintain and fix equipment.
When breakdowns occur, mechanics may partially or completely disassemble a machine to make the necessary repairs. They replace worn bearings, adjust clutches, and replace and repair defective parts. They may have to order replacement parts from the machinery’s manufacturer. If no parts are available, they may have to make the necessary replacements, using milling machines, lathes, or other tooling equipment. After the machine is reassembled, they may have to make adjustments to its operational settings. They often work with the machine’s regular operator to test it. When repairing electronically controlled machinery, mechanics may work closely with electronic repairers or electricians who maintain the machine’s electronic parts.
Often these mechanics can identify potential breakdowns and fix problems before any real damage or delays occur. They may notice that a machine is vibrating, rattling, or squeaking, or they may see that the items produced by the machine are flawed. Many types of new machinery are built with programmed internal evaluation systems that check the accuracy and condition of equipment. This assists mechanics in their jobs, but it also makes them responsible for maintaining the check-up systems.
Machinery installations are becoming another facet of a mechanic’s job. As plants retool and invest in new equipment, they rely on mechanics to properly situate and install the machinery. In many plants, millwrights traditionally did this job, but as employers increasingly seek workers with multiple skills, industrial machinery mechanics are taking on new responsibilities.
Industrial machinery mechanics use a wide range of tools when doing preventive maintenance or making repairs. For example, they may use simple tools such as a screwdriver and wrench to repair an engine or a hoist to lift a printing press off the ground. Sometimes they solder or weld equipment. They use power and hand tools and precision measuring instruments. In some shops, mechanics troubleshoot the entire plant’s operations. Others may become experts in electronics, hydraulics, pneumatics, or other specialties.
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While most employers prefer to hire those who have completed high school, opportunities do exist for those without a diploma as long as they have had some kind of related training. While you are in high school, take courses in mechanical drawing, general mathematics, algebra, and geometry. Other classes that will help prepare you for this career are physics, computer science, and electronics. Any class that gives you experience in blueprint reading adds to your qualifications.
In the past, most industrial machinery mechanics learned the skills of the trade informally by spending several years as helpers in a particular factory. Currently, as machinery has become more complex, more formal training is necessary. Today many mechanics learn the trade through apprenticeship programs sponsored by a local trade union. Apprenticeship programs usually last four years and include both on-the-job and related classroom training. In addition to the use and care of machine and hand tools, apprentices learn the operation, lubrication, and adjustment of the machinery and equipment they will maintain. In class they learn shop mathematics, blueprint reading, safety, hydraulics, welding, and other subjects related to the trade.
Students may also obtain training through vocational or technical schools. Useful programs are those that offer machine shop courses and provide training in electronics and numerical control machine tools.
Certification and Licensing
ISA—The Instrumentation, Systems, and Automation Society offers certification for industrial maintenance mechanics. Contact the society for more information.
Students interested in this field should possess mechanical aptitude and manual dexterity. Good physical condition and agility are necessary because as a mechanic you will sometimes have to lift heavy objects, crawl under large machines, or climb to reach equipment located high above the factory floor.
Mechanics are responsible for valuable equipment and are often called upon to exercise considerable independent judgment. Because of technological advances, you should be willing to learn the requirements of new machines and production techniques. When a plant purchases new equipment, the equipment’s manufacturer often trains plant employees in proper operation and maintenance. Technological change requires mechanics to be adaptable and to have inquiring minds.
If you are interested in this field, you should take as many shop courses as you can. Exploring and repairing machinery such as auto mobiles and home appliances will also sharpen your skills. In addition, try landing part-time work or a summer job in an industrial plant that gives you the opportunity to observe industrial repair work being done.
Approximately 220,000 industrial machinery mechanics are employed in the United States. These mechanics work in a wide variety of plants and are employed in every part of the country, although employment is concentrated in industrialized areas. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, two-thirds of all industrial machinery mechanics work in manufacturing industries such as chemicals, motor vehicles, food processing, textile mill products, primary metals, and fabricated metal products. Others work for public utilities, government agencies, and mining companies.
Jobs can be obtained by directly applying to companies that use industrial equipment or machinery. The majority of mechanics work for manufacturing plants. These plants are found in a wide variety of industries, including the automotive, plastics, textile, electronics, packaging, food, beverage, and aerospace industries. Chances for job openings may be better at a large plant. New workers are generally assigned to work as helpers or trainees.
Prospective mechanics also may learn of job openings or apprenticeship programs through local unions. Industrial mechanics may be represented by one of several unions, depending on their industry and place of employment. These unions include the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America; the United Steelworkers of America; the United Auto Workers; the International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Salaried, Machine, and Furniture Workers—Communications Workers of America; the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America; and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, approximately 25 percent of all industrial machinery mechanics are members of a union. Private and state employment offices are other good sources of job openings.
Those who begin as helpers or trainees usually become journeymen in four years. Although opportunities for advancement beyond this rank are somewhat limited, industrial machinery mechanics who learn more complicated machinery and equipment can advance to higher paying positions. The most highly skilled mechanics may be promoted to master mechanics. Those who demonstrate good leadership and interpersonal skills can become supervisors. Skilled mechanics also have the option of becoming machinists, numerical control tool programmers, precision metalworkers, packaging machinery technicians, and robotics technicians. Some of these positions do require additional training, but the skills of a mechanic readily transfer to these areas.
In 2006, median hourly earnings for industrial machinery mechanics were $19.74 (or $41,050 annually), according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The lowest paid 10 percent earned less than $12.84 an hour (or $26,710 annually). The highest 10 percent earned $29.85 or more per hour (or $62,080 annually). Apprentices generally earn lower wages and earn incremental raises as they advance in their training. Earnings vary based on experience, skills, type of industry, and geographic location. Those working in union plants generally earn more than those in nonunion plants. Most industrial machinery mechanics are provided with benefit packages, which can include paid holidays and vacations; medical, dental, and life insurance; and retirement plans.
Industrial machinery mechanics work in all types of manufacturing plants, which may be hot, noisy, and dirty or relatively quiet and clean. Mechanics frequently work with greasy, dirty equipment and need to be able to adapt to a variety of physical conditions. Because machinery is not always accessible, mechanics may have to work in stooped or cramped positions or on high ladders.
Although working around machinery poses some danger, this risk is minimized with proper safety precautions. Modern machinery includes many safety features and devices, and most plants follow good safety practices. Mechanics often wear protective clothing and equipment, such as hard hats and safety belts, glasses, and shoes.
Mechanics work with little supervision and need to be able to work well with others. They need to be flexible and respond to changing priorities, which can result in interruptions that pull a mechanic off one job to repair a more urgent problem. Although the standard workweek is 40 hours, overtime is common. Because factories and other sites can't afford breakdowns, industrial machinery mechanics may be called to the plant at night or on weekends for emergency repairs.
The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that employment for industrial machinery mechanics will grow more slowly than the aver age for all occupations through 2014. Some industries will have a greater need for mechanics than others. Much of the new automated production equipment that companies are purchasing has its own self-diagnostic capabilities and is more reliable than older equipment. Although this machinery still needs to be maintained, most job openings will stem from the replacement of transferring or retiring workers.
Certain industries are extremely susceptible to changing economic factors and reduce production activities in slow periods. During these periods, companies may lay off workers or reduce hours. Mechanics are less likely to be laid off than other workers as machines need to be maintained regardless of production levels. Slower production periods and temporary shutdowns are often used to overhaul equipment. Nonetheless, employment opportunities are generally better at companies experiencing growth or stable levels of production.
Because machinery is becoming more complex and automated, mechanics need to be more highly skilled than in the past. Mechanics who stay up to date with new technologies, particularly those related to electronics and computers, should find favorable employment opportunities over the next decade.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For information on certification, careers, and student membership, contact:
ISA—The Instrumentation, Systems, and Automation Society
67 Alexander Drive
Research Triangle Park, NC 27709
For information about apprentice programs, contact the UAW.
International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW)
8000 East Jefferson Avenue
Detroit, MI 48214 -3963
For information about the machining industry and career opportunities, contact
National Tooling and Machining Association
9300 Livingston Road
Fort Washington, MD 20744-4914
For industry information, contact
Precision Machined Products Association
6700 West Snowville Road
Brecksville, OH 44141-3212