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When you think about the skilled trades, does your mind go to tiring, messy work with little payoff? Or, do you think about building custom hot rods, competing on a reality competition show, or welding together the metal on an interplanetary spacecraft? FABTECH — North America's largest fabrication and manufacturing exhibition, held in Chicago — spotlighted each of these lesser-known aspects of the trades and many more.
Vice president of SME Education Foundation , Rob Luce, explained why it's so important for events like FABTECH to counter stigma about the industry. He said in a panel that people "have this idea of manufacturing being dark, dull, dirty, and dead." Luce says, in reality, the trades are "clean, high-tech, and can be quite lucrative."
Cutting-edge technology on display at FABTECH was a huge draw for attendees. Anyone interested in improving their business or mastering their trade came to experience over 1,000 exhibits and listen to experts present on the future of manufacturing — from AI to automation.
Looking to the future also means appealing to the next generation of trades workers.
Sydney Mrowczynski, a new vocational student just starting to become a welder , tried her hand at certain welds for the first time, thanks to virtual simulators at the event. She was taken by FABTECH'S hands-on approach.
"When I think of conventions, I think of, you know, not as entertaining," she said. "I liked that everything was interactive."
If you're considering a career in the trades , here's what you have to look forward to:
1) Robots can actually make the trades more human.
Automated robots in the trades won't lead to fewer jobs — they'll create more skilled workers. Manufacturing companies can use robots for mundane, repetitive tasks and train their staff to program, correct, and optimize the bots.
One exhibitor, LestaUSA, presented their self-learning robot for finishing applications (think: powder coating and painting). Finishing takes a lot of nuance and skill, which shop painters have worked hard to perfect. LestaUSA's robots learn from painters and repeat their motions.
What does this mean for trades workers?
- Physical health and safety. Many tasks involved in the trades are repetitive and hard on the body. Robots can reduce that strain on human workers.
- Cross-training. The team behind LestaUSA says their robots turn jobs into careers because painters gain skills in monitoring robots' performance and managing a shop floor of bots rather than spending all day in the painting booth. You can read more about manufacturing automation and cross-training from the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International's (FMA) Tim Heston.
2) To be the best, be different.
From metal art to Mars rovers, everyone at FabTech shared a motivation to do something differently — be it school, business, or design. Here are just a few highlights:
Keynote speaker Adam Steltzner shared his non-traditional career path. Steltzner played in a rock band after struggling to finish high school. On a whim, he took an astronomy class at a local community college. Today, he’s a chief engineer at NASA. In February, his team successfully landed the Perseverance rover on Mars.
When the rest of the industry looked for efficiencies in their workforces, Adam Genei built his famed automotive aftermarket company Mobsteel to invest in American workers. In his words, to give talented craftsmen and women a platform to "show off how badass they are." He presented on cultivating the next generation of American workers.
The American Welding Society (AWS) hosted a Q&A with Stephanie Hoffman and David Madero, stars of Netflix’s new Metal Shop Masters, where welders and weld artists compete for $50,000.
Hoffman, an AWS-certified welding instructor, and sculptor Madero represent the science and art of welding, respectively. They agree it takes both to excel in the field. Hoffman preached the power of art and project-based learning to teach welding students problem-solving skills. Madero said that art unites even the most technical of welders: "We all have something creative in our brains."
3) Besides technology, community and culture will determine the future of the skilled trades.
The trades are due for a cultural transformation. Industry leaders are desperate for more voices and diverse perspectives.
Each of the co-organizing associations at FABTECH has committed to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, the AWS' Women in Welding conference highlights women leaders and addresses topics they face. And the SME Education Foundation partners with historically Black colleges and universities to promote diversity in engineering.
Events like FABTECH prove why it's crucial for people in manufacturing and fabrication to convene — to learn from each other, to recruit talent from every corner of the country, and to answer the questions posed by Steltzner in his keynote:
"What is the edge of us? What are we capable of doing? What is our potential?"
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