Working in a Factory (And knowing you could be replaced by robots)

Working in a Factory (And knowing you could be replaced by robots)

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Tyco Kendall-Sherwood (later bought by Covidien) medical manufacturing plant in Argyle, NY
Tyco Kendall-Sherwood (later bought by Covidien) medical manufacturing plant in Argyle, NY

The small town I grew up in is surrounded by factories. Our town was centered around an International Paper mill (closed in 2002). A lot of my family has worked at factories as it is one of the better paying (for no education) jobs around.

In the summer of 2001, between my freshmen and sophomore college years, I was employed by Tyco Kendall at their manufacturing plant in Argyle, NY (pop. 3,700 as of 2010). A lot of this is going off of decade-old memories so take this as you will.


Hiring Summer Help for One Reason

The gender make-up of the plant was 75% women due to the clean work environment. Only medical supplies were produced there so everything was sterile and clean. Hair nets were required for all hair (including men’s facial hair). The building was temperature controlled because windows couldn’t be opened (to avoid air contaminants). Many assembly line positions had chairs so you could sit during your tasks.

I learned about this job opportunity from my brother who was working there at the time. We were both working night-shift and carpooled. The job was different for both of us. I was working there as a summer job to pay for next year’s tuition. He was a 35-year old with a wife and two kids.

The rumor around the plant was Tyco Kendall were employing summer help to stock up on inventory before closing the plant to move to Mexico within the next year or two.

And that’s exactly what they did; 335 employees lost their job when the plant closed in 2003.

Manufacturing currently done at Kendall Sherwood will be moved to Tijuana, Mexico. The Mexican plant is newer and more technologically advanced than the one in Argyle, said Gary Holmes, a company spokesman. Holmes declined to say if labor costs factored into the company’s decision.


Night Shift Means You’re Always Tired

Working in a factory on night shift is a strange work week. Your week starts Sunday night at 11:00pm and ends Thursday morning at 7:00am. We, surprisingly, had weekends off. Meaning Friday night and Saturday night. However, because our schedule was so off during the week, having two “normal” days was never enough to get back on a normal schedule. I had never felt so tired as that summer. I could never get enough rest.

Working night shift also means that you didn’t always have time to do errands, like going to the bank. I remember a few times going to the grocery store, bank, or library at 8/9am and feeling like a zombie because I had been up all night. Forcing myself to stay up those extra hours just so I could do errands like a ‘normal’ person.

Working night shift did have one perk – a small pay increase. We were paid $0.75/hr more for working nights. If I remember correctly, this made our hourly wage $10.75. Minimum wage at the time was $5.15/hr, so this was ‘good money’.


High School All Over Again

At the beginning of my shift, I’d walk in the building and punch in immediately. Then head to the locker rooms to put on a smock over my clothes and put on a hair net. Remember, sterile environment. Also in the locker room was the day’s schedule. We were each assigned to a machine & starting position.

You were on the same machine all day long but assembly line positions changed every 30 minutes. There were bells, like in high school, that sounded for each shift, position, and break change. Our shift started at 11:00pm and we started at the position initially assigned to us. Every 30 minutes a bell would ring in the machine room signalling us to move to the next position on the line.

According to employees who had been working there for years, the 30-minute period was rather new. Some remembered when you sat at one position on the line for the entire 8-hour work day. Then it was broken down to four hours, then one hour, then finally every 30 minutes. Even though you’re still doing repetitive monotonous activity all night long, breaking it up into small sections was helpful mentally.

We were allowed two sanctioned breaks: A 10-minute break from 1:30-1:40am and a 20-minute lunch break from 4:15-4:35am. Even though these were both signaled by a bell, you couldn’t actually leave your position until you were relieved by another worker.

Similarly, if you needed a bathroom break at any non-break time during your shift, you needed to draw the attention of a supervisor to take your positions on the line. As they were running around to different machines, it was sometimes difficult to find one. And there was nothing you could do about it. Your actions revolve around the machine. It doesn’t stop because you need to stop.


So Easy Even Robots Can Do It (and do)

Machine Assembly Line with Positions
Machine Assembly Line with Positions

I was on one machine about 95% of the time. The machine I used the most was Machine 13. When I came in, I would see on the schedule next to my name “13-coiler” or “13-glue1”. Something like that. It told you the machine you would be on that night and your starting position.

On this machine there were seven positions. Seven employees. There were three machines in this one giant room. I drew a little graphic above to help you mentally picture it.

I learned from the other employees that back in the day, each of these three machines required seven workers. That’s 21 employees plus additional supervisors at each machine. The women I worked with remembered the room full of workers, their friends. They remembered being able to yell to someone at another machine or jokes that could be passed around the room. They painted a jovial picture of chatter among the monotonous work.

Over the years, two of the machines had robotic arms installed. One robotic arm took the place of six workers. A room of 21 assembly line workers dwindled down to 9. The women who had been working here for years literally saw their coworkers replaced by robots.


Machine-13

Coiled tube with glued connectors made by Machine 13 Tyco Kendall Sherwood
Coiled tube with glued connectors made by Machine 13

The machine I worked on made medical tubing, like for IVs. The machine created the connectors and the tubes, then we had to glue the connector onto each end of the tube, feed it into a coil machine & package, then inspect each package to make sure the seal was tight. A non-tight seal meant the product would become non-sterile and useless.

Glue 1 & 2
You and another employee are sitting on the same side of the table at a distance away from each other. It’s not too far but far enough that you couldn’t maintain a conversation with them. As you sit there, a clear tube appears on the assembly belt in front of you. You and the other gluer each grab an end and remove it from the belt. You are working with the same tube so these movements have to be coordinated. If two gluers have different paces, this can become frustrating. There is a small basin in front of you where you can put the tubes to collect if you need to. Each tube needs to be taken off the assembly belt immediately. The machine waits for no one.

You both take an end of the tube and insert it into a hole in a container next to you. This puts industrial strength glue onto the end of the tube. This glue, which you inhale the fumes of all night long, has the wonderful side effect of drowsiness.

There is a little container of blue connectors next to you. Once there is glue at the end of the tube, stick a connector on it then the both of you have to coordinate putting it back on the assembly belt for it to move onto the next position. The belt only moved in one direction.

There were four glue positions, two on each side of the table. You couldn’t easily talk to the person next to you but could talk to the person across from you. Sometimes you did, sometimes you didn’t.

Coiler

Tube coiled, packaged, sealed
Tube coiled, packaged, sealed

There was part of the machine that would coil the tube and put it into a small half envelope. You would put the tube + envelope in a large sterile package . Then you ran it through a hot-glue sealing belt so the package was securely sealed. This was important because if the seal is not perfectly closed, the tube would then become non-sterile and couldn’t be used in the hospital/medical facility it was delivering to.

This position was one of the trickiest. You had to coordinate with the gluers because whenever they put a tube back on the belt, it would immediately go to you to get coiled. Sometimes you needed to replace the envelopes or packages in the machine. A rather scary task because if you were too slow a metal plate would come down on your fingers. Remember, you can’t just stop the machine. You could tell the gluers to wait a few seconds but this just meant that they got backed up and you’d have to make up for it later.

We did have a sign in the cafeteria that said “It’s been ___ days since an injury in this workplace.” I think the highest number I saw it get up to was 5.



Inspector
The last position was that of inspection and you were placed at a table outside the main machine room. The job of the inspector was to collect the packaged tubes, inspect them for contamination, then put them in cardboard boxes for shipment. If you didn’t think some packages were sealed enough you would have to bring them back in to the coilers.

This inspection position was the only remaining human position for the machines manned by robotic arms. The robotic arm handled the gluing, coiling, and sealing, but they still needed a human to check for contamination and fill the boxes. The arm didn’t always work correctly and sometimes it would seal the packages crooked. An employee would then have to go back and reseal them all by hand. Many times the robotic arms were down completely. I have no idea how the cost analysis broke down for that.


No Thinking Required

There’s something strange about working on a machine that never stops. Knowing that the person who replaces you at the end of your shift can do the same exact thing you were doing. Not better. There is no better. If you show up, you’re doing great. The machine I was on required black & white skills. Either you did your job or you didn’t. You either kept up with the machine or you didn’t. No one could be an individual and just go their own way. No one could ever stand out and shine. It wasn’t possible to glue the connectors “better” than the person before you. You couldn’t coil faster than the machine allowed you to. It was not only monotonous in action but also in overall performance.

There was little training. There was zero creativity. The job allowed for a lot of thinking time, both good and bad. And a lot of boredom. Talking to others was allowed. Sometimes you could distract yourself but usually you couldn’t. This was not a job you could use as an escape from your real life. If you have something on your mind bothering you, you’ll likely be dwelling on it for 8 hours because your brain isn’t doing much else. On the plus side, having that much ‘free brain time’ is nice if you are creative to use for brainstorming, etc. It’s hard to say what filled the brains of the long-term workers there.

I mentioned earlier about human workers being replaced by robots but you can see why that is so easy with some of these tasks.

Every hire had to become part of the Union and dues were automatically taken out of our pay checks. You couldn’t work there unless you were in the Union. This didn’t affect me as I was there for such a short time. But I heard from others that the Union was helpful in negotiating time off and pay increases.

From time to time I heard about open supervisor positions that employees could apply for. Though I am not sure the education required or the hiring process.

My experience working on an assembly line was very different form most since I was not counting on that job or money for my livelihood. I remember some nights a machine would break down or the factory would lose power and we were sent home early. That is money lost. I can’t imagine hearing that my place of employment for years is being shut down and moved to Mexico. I have no idea how hard it is knowing that my friends used to do what that robotic arm is doing now. While the daily tasks I performed there were not challenging physically or mentally, I can see working there full-time to be an emotional challenge.


Hopefully I will not be employed in such a position in the future but I am glad to have had the unique experience. If you’re curious about anything else on this experience, let me know below.

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20 Replies to “Working in a Factory (And knowing you could be replaced by robots)”

  1. Wow, that was really fascinating to hear about your experience. I am sure you have lots of stories to tell. I have a friend who works night shifts and he gets about 4 hours of sleep per night and all his circadian rhythms are OFF. I can’t imagine. The repetitive motions of factory work must be hard too. On one hand, it’s nice to ease the burden of the job to a robot, but then it’s a job. Here in Oregon, it’s law that someone has to pump your gas for you. It was such a surprise to me. But the economy is so bad, that that simple law provides so many jobs.

    1. Oregon and New Jersey are the only two states where it is illegal to pump your own gasoline (in NJ you can self-serve for Diesel). It surprised me too but definitely provides for a lot of jobs. Growing up I remember being sad hearing about another factory closing in the region. And that’s even after so many workers are replaced.

  2. This was fascinating Leslie! I wish you had posted a picture of you with the hair net. :-) And I remember getting a tour of a Jeep plant a number of years ago and thinking that the machines were doing most of the work and that the day where the machine did the job of the person on the line was not that far away. I think if it wasn’t for the unions in Michigan, they probably would have gone away by now. I wonder how people work those jobs every day and not think about when they will lose their job and what they are skilled to do next.

    1. This was before everyone had a camera in their pocket!

      Many folks in my family have been laid off (as my brother was when this plant close down) and they always find something else. Another factory, construction job, or nursing are the common choices.

  3. I don’t understand people who can’t shift to a night schedule. If you’re working 8 hours a night, don’t sleep at night. Wake up a few hours before going on, go to work, then do your various errandy and entertainment stuff in the morning. You can use lights and dark curtains to help regulate your cycle.

    I did night shift a few times, and I loved it. But maybe it’s different if you do it night in night out for months.

    1. There were two huge factors in my not being able to handle night shift very well. For one, a repetitive monotonous job can really get you down mentally. I never felt ‘energized’ at work. There weren’t any accomplishments. There was never a huge project that just launched successfully. There were rarely days that required a struggle or mental effort. And you knew exactly what the next day was going to be like. Everything felt drab all the time.

      The other difficult part for me working nights was that this was over the summer. Even with blackout curtains and an air conditioner cranking full blast, it was still difficult to get a good nights sleep in the daytime with summer heat raging.

    1. Thinking back that was definitely one of the more frustrating aspects of the job. It is hard finding motivation for going into work every day (especially if tired) when you’re not completing any personal accomplishments. Not having any long-term projects or goals really made every effort seem pointless sometimes.

  4. Wow. That was really, really interesting! I’ve never thought about the life of a factory worker at all. Gosh, that monotony would’ve killed me. And 8 hours alone in your head every day… dang. I can’t imagine a lifetime of working night shift either. Did the regulars switch over time or were you just like nightshift for life then?

    1. From my memories of talking to other employees there I think it was part newcomers, part for the higher wage, and part by choice. It’s not a terrible shift for parents since you can see your kids off to school, sleep all day, then still spend time with them in the evening. I can’t remember how long my brother worked there but he worked nights the entire time.

  5. Thankfully, I never had to work a factory job.. But I would certainly do it if I had to. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could listen to music or podcasts while you worked, I guess :)

    I have worked overnight shifts before and well.. and it is definitely difficult to have a normal social life while living that way.

    1. Unfortunately we definitely couldn’t listen to music or podcasts or have any devices like that on you. I can see horrible injuries now where the headphone cord gets tangled in one of the machines! Plus you want to be paying attention somewhat since you are working with dangerous machinery.

  6. When I was a kid there were quite a few factory and manufacturing jobs in my community. They gave a lot of people without formal education (my grandparents included) jobs. To this day my grandmother tells stories about when the “machines” came in and they no longer had to cut the heads off sardines with scissors! My mom worked in the factory when she was in high school (probably explains why she hates seafood). Sad to see good paying jobs going away for the hard working folks who don’t have the money or desire to pursue higher education.

  7. Wow that is so interesting! When I worked at Ford Motor Company I used to edit videos all the time which showed a lot of people working the line. I was always jealous at the time because they were making considerably more money than me and I had a college degree. I realize this was immature thinking. It is hard work…and sometimes even more mentally hard work in its own way. It would be very hard to do that day in and day out. I’ve also done night shifts at several jobs myself, and I never got used to it. You do always feel like a zombie.

    1. As frustrating as the monotonous activity can be for an achiever, there is also something nice about the simplicity of it. Having such little responsibility. Doing what your tasks then just going home and forgetting about it. I definitely couldn’t maintain that lifestyle but understand why some people do like it.

      I have no clue what the benefits were like since I was only temporary. Growing up it always seemed my mother had a shoddy benefits plan offered by the paper mill. I remember it not covering a lot of medications, but I was also so young I didn’t really have a concept of what benefits meant.

  8. For as long as I can remember, my dad worked the night shift. We would get home from school for lunch hour, and run to wake him up.
    He got home around 5.30 in the morning, and got up around 12.30pm… so for years, he got by with only 6 hours of sleep… maybe he napped in the afternoons? I’m not sure lol.
    I here’s what I do know: the money was far better than a day shift. I think he made about 30% more than he would have in the same position in a day shift.

  9. My Dad worked 30 years in a factory and from a kids point of view it was a good job. We got to take family vacation, we had a house with 2 cars and my sister and I never went without. However if you ask my Dad it was a completely different situation. His friends jobs were being cut as processes were improved with technology. And workers were treated like second class citizens from management. But my Dad did it for his family!

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