Why I Love the Factory

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I always saw myself working in an office. As a teenager, my vision of office life was glamourised by films and imported American television: stiletto heels, pencil skirts, an ultra-modern office in a skyscraper. It’s an image that will most likely not become a reality.

 

I do actually work in an office at the moment. Instead of a skyscraper in London, it’s a two storey 1960’s building in suburbia where not even the directors wear suits or ties. I had my stiletto heels and pencil skirt moments (not at the same time). The 2 inch heels were abandoned after four hours from the combined effect of feeling ridiculous wearing them and the four large blisters that had formed on the backs of my heels. I swapped the skirts for trousers as the time spent tugging the hemline closer to my knees became too much to tolerate. Office life does have its perks, the biggest being that it’s a five minute walk from my house meaning I’ve never had to eat lunch at my desk once.

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I thought the factory would be a grim place to work. Even on a clear, sunny day, the view full of grey steel tanks, structures and columns is hardly a pleasing one. During our induction fortnight, we toured each of the factories: the noises of motors constantly whirring, the smell, and the general lack of cleanliness didn’t exactly improve the ambience.

 

It all changed in my fourth week of placement, when I was sent to a site on my own for the first time. I’m not sure if it was the newly acquired sense of purpose walking through the factory with my hard-hat of hi-vis on,  or the fact it was common place for employees to take a break mid-morning to get a full-English breakfast from the canteen, but I found myself buzzing with extra energy and my three-day assignment whizzed past.

 

There’s a difference between office and factory environments that is starker than their aesthetics. The easiest way to explain this would be to describe head office as central London, and the factory as a country village. At head office, there is no shortage of people all going about their daily business, but without making an active effort to make new friends, your circle of people is limited to those who share your corner of the office. At factory, everyone knows everyone. When I walk around and someone passing in the opposite direction says “Morning” in a broad Norfolk accent, it always brings a smile to my face.

 

At lunchtimes as well, you notice the difference. At HQ you will see several people eating lunch at their desks; a handful will eat at the little 5-seat tables in the canteen, and some will even miss the meal altogether because their schedule doesn’t leave time. Not at the factory: meal times are treated with a little more respect. Whole teams will eat together. At one of the sites, someone had pushed a group of tables together to make one that seated 20 people. No matter who you are, you would get your lunch, sit at the big table, and talk with whoever else was sitting there. I made more friends at that site during one lunch-hour than I had during four weeks at HQ.

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Despite the villagey atmosphere at factory, the pace of life is by no means slower. As I will come to explain in a future post: an Operations Engineer’s work is never done. Never.

 

The most labour-intensive job in the business is cleaning, and that gets contracted out. The simple, repetitive routine that our grandparents and great-grand-parents who worked in factories endured is a far cry from the modern plant. We have operators who monitor the process from the control room and shift teams who make sure everything runs smoothly. The engineers, managers and technicians who aren’t on shift liaise with the shift teams and operators to find ways to resolve problems and optimise the process while simultaneously co-ordinating the planning and delivery of the many improvement projects planned for the factory.

 

It’s a healthy way of working. The staff are often moving from one area of the factory to another several times a day, rarely spending more than an hour at a time at their desks. It suits better than my desk at HQ where I need only walk 20 steps to the toilets and 15 steps to the coffee machine.

 

Factory life can, however, be frustrating at times. Every single person in the business whether they are based at factory or at head office acts in the best interests of the business, but differences in opinion are common. And for the factories, some decisions are beyond their control. It could be a case where the business had made a decision to standardise on a particular type of equipment but one of the sites prefers another, or it could be a multi-million pound project that a team of engineers had spent months planning being cancelled.

 

There is no doubt that factories can be enjoyable places to work; even when you’re outside on a cold day with rain pounding onto your hardhat while you try and locate a non-existent instrument on an out-of-date Piping & Instrumentation Diagram (P&ID). When you put on your hard-hat and fluorescent orange overalls, you leave what was normal and enter a different way of life, where the pace of life is quick and the banter is free-flowing.

 

Most importantly, it is proof that glamour does not equal satisfaction. Unfortunately, convincing others of this fact is more easily said than done. Until industry and the media learn to collaborate to publicise/glamourise engineering, the perks of factory life will remain a well-kept secret.

 

 

Death by TLA’s (Three Letter Acronyms)

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Some BMA’s are being installed at one of factories, all part of the BIP. They’re being integrated via PLC to the DCS because the DCS can only support TCP. You not following? Think of TCP as the bridge between the I/O and the NIM. Unless you’re using FF then you’d use a FIM. Then your FIM is connected to your firewall, unless all your ports have been taken up by WDM’s or PCDI’s. Just think of the whole thing as a PCN, unless you’re on the old version then it’s called an OPC. Don’t worry if this looks complicated; the APM is a simple piece of software to take care of it all. Now, when you’re on the APM, make sure you specify you pick DACA from that drop-down menu when you configure the DD.Think yourself lucky: changing from TDC to PKS has really simplifed things.

 

Here, I have fitted in about half of the TLA’s (Three Letter Acronyms) and a few cheeky TLA’s (Two Letter Acronyms) mentioned in Wednesday’s meeting into a single paragraph. The beauty of acronyms is that a single one can have several different meanings.

For example: P  I  D

PID: Proportional, Integral, Derivative [control law]

P&ID: Piping and Instrumentation Diagrams

PID: Passenger Information Display

And these are just the PID’s that I have personally come across so far. I could go on to name the top results of my Google search such as Pelvic Inflammatory Disease but you get the point.

 

What I’m really trying to get at here is how difficult it is to follow conversations and learn when dozens of different acronyms are being thrown around. A handful will be commonly used in the control world: PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) and DCS (Distributed Control System) are two of the most common. The majority, however, will be specific to different products, companies, or industries. And with Engineering being a small fish in Google’s pond, it’s pot luck to whether a search will give you a meaning in the correct context.

 

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So what needs to be done?

 We need to be aware how acronyms can form communication barriers. Many meetings will be attended by non-specialists whether that is an intern like myself; a different type of engineer used to a different working set of acronyms, or a representative from a different department such as Procurement or Sales.

Conversations can be difficult for non-specialists to follow at the best of times. Using a full name over an acronym can make the difference between knowing and not knowing what you don’t understand.

And if you don’t know what you don’t understand, without asking for the definition (which unfortunately doesn’t always happen for various reasons), the conversation might as well not have happened.

 

Engineering Tip #1: Don’t forget to interview the employer

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I find it incredulous how companies are allowed to get away with not telling their new recruits what function of the business they will be working with and what it entails until they turn up on their first day. The problem is, students can be so transfixed on securing a job, extremely aware of the competition, and keen to not say anything to put off an employer, it is all too easy for large household name companies to lure in students based on the strength of their company’s brand alone.

Six months ago, I had the privilege of representing my company at a recruitment fair at the University of Loughborough. Any 2nd year engineer studying at Loughborough is incredibly lucky for their faculty to put on a fair where employers are purely focused on recruiting for internships rather than graduate schemes. It was great for me too: it was an opportunity to talk with tens of interns who like me, were less than 4 months into their placements.

It did not take long to notice a trend in their experiences. Nearly all agreed industry was different to how they imagined. Many felt that there job lacked opportunities to apply the technical knowledge they had learned in industry, and some were even placed in non-engineering functions of their business.

I could easily relate to their concerns. Though I was overall enjoying my job and had plenty of positive things to say about it, there was the issue that my background in control had (at the time) been of limited use in my line of work. There were also two key things I didn’t know before my first day:

1. That my job role would fall into the category of ‘Asset Management’

2. That the mathematical and programming skills that I had painstakingly developed over three years of university would have limited use in the Asset Management world

It was then I started questioning how realistic my expectations of the engineering real-world were. It didn’t take long to realise how vague my expectations were.

I saw myself working on control systems for chemical processes, so I applied for oil & gas, food and chemical companies. This brings me onto another three things I didn’t know:

3. Large manufacturing companies have a tendency to contract out specialist work to external firms

4. There is more to control engineering than the design and development of control systems

5. Different teams of engineers have very distinct roles and responsibilities, even if they studied the same discipline of engineering at university.

 

It should have been obvious, but I was so focused answering the questions aimed at me at the interview that I forgot that the interview was a two way process. I didn’t even ask what I would be doing on the job.

In the end, I was lucky: asset management turned out to not be as dull as it sounded and I was given an opportunity to join the project engineers on a large high-profile project. I have friends who didn’t share my luck, but only being on a temporary contract, they have the opportunity to pick a graduate employer with a bit more care.

Not every engineering job in a company will be high-profile or make good use of all of the technical skills used at university; there are plenty of interesting jobs that lack the glamour to be used in engineering outreach campaigns. Whatever your ambitions, make sure you and any potential employer are on the same page. When you are committing up to four years of your life when signing a contract for a graduate scheme, the element of surprise won’t always be welcome.