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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