Changes in technology have transformed the manufacturing and assembly process. Modern manufacturing systems use robots, computers, programmable motion control devices, and various sensing technologies. These systems change the way in which goods are made and affect the jobs of those who make them. The more advanced assemblers must be able to work with these new technologies and use them to produce goods.
The job of an assembler or fabricator ranges from very easy to very complicated, requiring a range of knowledge and skills. Skilled assemblers putting together complex machines, for example, begin by reading detailed schematics or blueprints that show how to assemble the machine. After determining how parts should connect, they use hand or power tools to trim, shim, cut, and make other adjustments to fit components together and align properly. Once the parts are properly aligned, they connect them with bolts and screws or by welding or soldering pieces together.
Careful quality control is important throughout the assembly process, so assemblers look for faulty components and mistakes in the assembly process. They help to fix problems before more defective products are produced.
Manufacturing techniques are evolving away from traditional assembly line systems toward “lean” manufacturing systems, which are causing the nature of assemblers' work to change. Lean manufacturing uses teams of workers to produce entire products or components. Team assemblers may still work on an assembly line, but they rotate through different tasks, rather than specializing in a single task. The team also may decide how the work is assigned and how different tasks are performed. This worker flexibility helps companies cover for absent workers, improves productivity, and increases companies' ability to respond to changes in demand by shifting labor from one product line to another. For example, if demand for a product drops, companies may reduce the total number of workers producing it, asking the remaining workers to perform more stages of the assembly process. Some aspects of lean production, such as rotating tasks and seeking worker input on improving the assembly process, are common to all assembly and fabrication occupations.
Although most assemblers and fabricators are classified as team assemblers, others specialize in producing one type of product or perform the same or similar tasks throughout the assembly process. These workers are classified according to the products they assemble or produce. Electrical and electronic equipment assemblers, for example, build products such as electric motors, computers, electronic control devices, and sensing equipment. Automated systems have been put in place as many small electronic parts are too small or fragile for human assembly. Much of the remaining work of electrical and electronic assemblers is manual assembly during the small-scale production of electronic devices used in avionic systems, military systems, and medical equipment. Manual production requires these workers to use devices such as soldering irons. Electromechanical equipment assemblers assemble and modify electromechanical devices such as household appliances, CT scanners, or vending machines. The workers use a variety of tools, such as rulers, rivet guns and soldering irons. Coil winders, tapers, and finishers wind wire coil used in a variety of electric and electronic products, including resistors, transformers, generators, and electric motors.
Engine and other machine assemblers construct, assemble, or rebuild engines and turbines, and machines used in automobiles, construction and mining equipment, and power generators. Aircraft structure, surfaces, rigging, and systems assemblers assemble, fit, fasten, and install parts of airplanes, space vehicles, or missiles, including tails and wings, landing gear, and heating and ventilation systems. Structural metal fabricators and fitters cut, align, and fit together structural metal parts and may assist in welding or riveting the parts together. Fiberglass laminators and fabricators develop products made of fiberglass, mainly boat decks and hulls. Timing device assemblers, adjusters, and calibrators perform precision assembling or adjusting of timing devices within very narrow tolerances.
It has become more common to involve assemblers and fabricators in product development. Designers and engineers consult manufacturing workers during the design stage to improve product reliability and manufacturing efficiency. For example, an assembler may tell a designer that the dashboard of a new car design will be too difficult to install quickly and consistently. The designer could then redesign it to make it easier to install.
Some experienced assemblers work with designers and engineers to build prototypes or test products. These assemblers must be able to read and interpret complex engineering specifications from text, drawings, and computer-aided drafting systems. They also may need to use a variety of tools and precision measuring instruments.
Assemblers and fabricators held about 1.7 million jobs in 2020. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up assemblers and fabricators was distributed as follows:
- Miscellaneous assemblers and fabricators - 1,262,800
- Electrical, electronic, and electromechanical assemblers, except coil winders, tapers, and finishers - 284,800
- Structural metal fabricators and fitters - 70,000
- Engine and other machine assemblers - 43,700
- Aircraft structure, surfaces, rigging, and systems assemblers - 37,800
- Fiberglass laminators and fabricators - 19,200
- Coil winders, tapers, and finishers - 12,400
- Timing device assemblers and adjusters - 1,000
The largest employers of assemblers and fabricators were as follows:
- Transportation equipment manufacturing - 24%
- Temporary help services - 11%
- Machinery manufacturing - 10%
- Computer and electronic product manufacturing - 9%
- Fabricated metal product manufacturing - 8%
Most assemblers and fabricators work in manufacturing plants, and working conditions vary by plant and by industry. Many physically difficult tasks, such as tightening massive bolts or moving heavy parts into position, have been automated or made easier through the use of power tools. Assembly work, however, may still involve long periods of standing, sitting, or working on ladders.
Injuries and Illnesses
Some assemblers come into contact with potentially dangerous chemicals or fumes, but ventilation systems usually minimize any harmful effects. Other assemblers come into contact with oil and grease, and their work areas may be noisy. Fiberglass laminators and fabricators are exposed to fiberglass, which may irritate the skin; these workers must wear protective gear, such as gloves and long sleeves, and must use respirators for safety.
Most assemblers and fabricators work full time. Some assemblers and fabricators work in shifts, which may require evening, weekend, and night work.Education & Training Required
Most applicants for assembler positions need only a high school diploma or GED, with workers learning the skills they need through on-the-job training, sometimes including employer-sponsored classroom instruction. Some employers may require specialized training or an associate degree for the most skilled assembly jobs. For example, jobs with electrical, electronic, and aircraft and motor vehicle products manufacturers typically require more formal education through technical schools.Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)
Assembly workers must be able to follow instructions carefully, which may require some basic reading skills and the ability to follow diagrams and pictures. Manual dexterity and the ability to carry out complex, repetitive tasks quickly and methodically also are important. For some positions, the ability to lift heavy objects may be needed. Team assemblers also need good interpersonal and communication skills to be able to work well with their teammates. Good eyesight and manual dexterity is necessary for assemblers and fabricators who work with small parts. Plants that make electrical and electronic products may test applicants for color vision, because their products often contain many differently colored wires.
Certifications are not common for most types of assemblers and fabricators. However, many employers that hire electrical and electronic assembly workers, especially those in the aerospace and defense industries, require certifications in soldering, such as those offered by the IPC.