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Manufacturing Engineering

An IBM Manufacturing Engineer Keeps His Options For Problem Solving Open

By John Griffiths

"The product I'm working on is really neat, I am constantly amazed the more I learn about it," marvels manufacturing engineer Thomas Yu about the computer cassette tape drives that his storage systems division at IBM manufactures. In addition to being neat to work on, however, his products are also quite useful. In fact, Yu states that his tape drives are employed by such corporations as General Motors and Wal-Mart to back up their high-end servers.

Yu's primary responsibilities involve monitoring the assembly line where the tape sets are manufactured. Specifically, he must ensure that enough product is being developed to meet customer commitments, while keeping track of the quality of the end-product. At the same time he's continually striving to drive the price of the procedure down. And there's no relying on robots to cut costs: "Our process is very manual—very labor-intensive," reports Yu.

In order to fulfill these responsibilities, a large part of Yu's day is spent on the line with the manual operators troubleshooting any problems that have developed, particularly those that involve quality control. "If I start to see a trend towards lower yields, lower quality rates or high defect-rate-per customer, then I have to find the root causes," explains Yu, and adds that the problems are not always manufacturing related. "I also work closely with our development department to see if there are any design issues."

A Hands-on Discipline

Yu is proud of the distinction between his relatively small business unit and other parts of his division that are more robotic-driven. "If I had to describe my line I'd almost paint a picture of old-world craftsmanship," he boasts of the high-precision assembly process he and his co-workers engage in. "We are very committed to keeping quality in the process."

Yu enjoys working in a manufacturing environment because of the fact that it allows for a variety of work experiences that keep his job interesting. "My schedule is dictated by daily demands of manufacturing, and we run a 24-hour operation, so there's always something new popping up."

Not surprisingly, the challenges that arise from such a position require the knowledge of varied technical specialties as well. Yu asserts that the product he develops requires basic knowledge of electronics (a tapehead is an electromagnetic instrument), physics (the tape head reads information magnetically), and of course mechanics to operate the motors and spindles of the tape machine. "I've had to be a mechanical engineer, as well as pick up things from other fields," states Yu, "particularly understanding the physics behind how my product works."

Another aspect of his job that Yu finds interesting is the fact that he is a vital link between the design team and the end-customer. "The design team comes up with what the product is going to look like and how it's going to function," he says, and explains that the manufacturing department is then responsible for taking those functions and producing something that customers can use.

Broad Engineering Background

Yu labels himself a generalist in terms of his engineering education background, and claims that he does not use the term disparagingly. He recalls that he does not use much of the specific theoretical knowledge he gained in the classroom, but instead relies heavily on the problem solving skills imparted in the engineering curriculum. "When you first get in the workplace it's a shock to discover that there are no concrete yes-or-no answers to some of the problems you will face," Yu asserts, and notes that at these times one is forced to rely upon problem-solving methodologies.

True to his generalist credo, Yu cautions engineering students that while it's important to have a life plan, don't get too hung up on mapping out the specific details too early. "I see a lot of students come into the workplace with a preconceived notion of exactly what they want to do for the rest of their lives. But if you restrict yourself early you cancel out other options. Keep your options open."

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