Industrial Machinery Mechanics and Millwrights - What They Do

Imagine an automobile assembly line: a large conveyor system moves unfinished automobiles down the line, giant robotic welding arms bond the different body panels together, hydraulic lifts move the motor into the body of the car, and giant presses stamp body parts from flat sheets of steel. All these complex machines need workers to install them and service them to make sure they function properly. Assembling and setting up these machines on the factory floor is the job of millwrights, while industrial machinery mechanics and machinery maintenance workers maintain and repair these machines.

Millwrights are the highly skilled workers who install, assemble, and, when necessary, dismantle machinery in factories, power plants, and construction sites. These workers consult with engineers and managers to determine the best location to place a machine. Millwrights then transport the machine parts to the desired location, using fork lifts, hoists, winches, cranes and other equipment. Machines do not arrive in one piece, and millwrights need to assemble them from their component parts. Millwrights must understand how a machine functions to assemble and disassemble it properly; this may involve knowledge of electronics, pneumatics, and computer systems. They use complex instruction books that detail the assembly of the machinery and use tools such as levels, welding machines, and hydraulic torque wrenches. Millwrights use micrometers, precision measuring devices, to achieve the extreme tolerances required by modern machines. On large projects, the use of cranes and trucks is common.

Assembly of a machine can take a few days or several weeks. Aside from assembly, millwrights are also involved in major repairs and disassembly of machines. If a manufacturing plant needs to clear floor space for new machinery, it can sell or trade-in old equipment. The breaking down of a machine is normally just as complicated as assembling it; all parts must be carefully taken apart, categorized and packaged for shipping.

While major repairs may require the assistance of a millwright, keeping machines in good working order is the primary responsibility of industrial machinery mechanics, also called industrial machinery repairers or maintenance machinists. To do this effectively, these workers must be able to detect minor problems and correct them before they become larger problems. Machinery mechanics use technical manuals, their understanding of the equipment, and careful observation to discover the cause of the problem. For example, after hearing a vibration from a machine, the mechanic must decide whether it is due to worn belts, weak motor bearings, or some other problem. Mechanics often need years of training and experience to fully diagnose all problems, but computerized diagnostic systems and vibration analysis techniques provide aid in determining the nature of the problem.

After diagnosing the problem, the industrial machinery mechanic may disassemble the equipment to repair or replace the necessary parts. Increasingly, mechanics are expected to have the electrical, electronics, and computer programming skills to repair sophisticated equipment on their own. Once a repair is made, mechanics perform tests to ensure that the machine is running smoothly. Primary responsibilities of industrial machinery mechanics also include preventive maintenance; for example, they adjust and calibrate automated manufacturing equipment, such as industrial robots.

The most basic maintenance and repair tasks are performed by machinery maintenance workers. These employees are responsible for cleaning and lubricating machinery, performing basic diagnostic tests, checking performance, and testing damaged machine parts to determine whether major repairs are necessary. In carrying out these tasks, maintenance workers must follow machine specifications and adhere to maintenance schedules. Maintenance workers may perform minor repairs, but major repairs generally are left to machinery mechanics.

Industrial machinery mechanics and machinery maintenance workers use a variety of tools to perform repairs and preventive maintenance. They may use handtools to adjust a motor or a chain hoist to lift a heavy printing press off the ground. When replacements for broken or defective parts are not readily available, or when a machine must be returned quickly to production, mechanics may create a new part using lathes, grinders, or drill presses. Mechanics use catalogs to order replacement parts and often follow blueprints, technical manuals, and engineering specifications to maintain and fix equipment. By keeping complete and up-to-date records, mechanics try to anticipate trouble and service equipment before factory production is interrupted. If an industrial machinery mechanic is unable to repair a machine and a major overhaul is needed, a millwright with expertise on the machine may be hired to make the repair.

Work Environment

In production facilities, these workers are subject to common shop injuries such as cuts, bruises, and strains. In the construction setting, workers must be careful of heavy equipment. They also may work in awkward positions, including on top of ladders or in cramped conditions under large machinery, which exposes them to additional hazards. To avoid injuries, workers must follow safety precautions and use protective equipment, such as hardhats, safety glasses, steel-tipped shoes, hearing protectors, and belts.

Because factories and other facilities cannot afford to have industrial machinery out of service for long periods, mechanics may be on call or assigned to work nights or on weekends. Overtime is common among these occupations, as about 30 percent of employees worked over 40 hours per week, on average, in 2008.

Millwrights are typically employed on a contract basis and may only spend a few days or weeks at a single site. As a result, schedules of work can be unpredictable, and workers may experience down time in between jobs.

Education & Training Required

All machinery maintenance and millwright worker positions generally require a high school diploma, GED, or its equivalent. However, employers increasingly prefer to hire machinery maintenance workers with some training in industrial technology. Employers also prefer to hire those who have taken high school or postsecondary courses in mechanical drawing, mathematics, blueprint reading, computer programming, or electronics.

Most millwrights, and some industrial machinery mechanics, enter the occupation through an apprenticeship program that typically lasts about 4 years. Apprenticeships can be sponsored by local union chapters, employers, or the State labor department. Training in these apprenticeships involves a combination of on-the-job training and classroom learning. Jobseekers can apply for union apprenticeships, and qualified applicants may begin training in local training facilities and factories.

Industrial machinery mechanics usually need a year or more of formal education and training after high school to learn the growing range of mechanical and technical skills that they need. While mechanics used to specialize in one area, such as hydraulics or electronics, many factories now require every mechanic to have knowledge of electricity, electronics, hydraulics, and computer programming.

Workers can get this training in a number of different ways. A 2-year associate degree program in industrial maintenance provides good preparation. Other mechanics may start as helpers or in other factory jobs and learn the skills of the trade informally and by taking courses offered through their employer. It is common for experienced production workers to move into maintenance positions if they show good mechanical abilities. Employers may offer on-site classroom training or send workers to local technical schools while they receive on-the-job training. Classroom instruction focuses on subjects such as shop mathematics, blueprint reading, welding, electronics, and computer training. In addition to classroom training, it is important that mechanics train on the specific machines they will repair. They can get this training on the job, through dealer or manufacturer's representatives, or in a classroom.

Machinery maintenance workers typically receive on-the-job training lasting a few months to a year to perform routine tasks, such as setting up, cleaning, lubricating, and starting machinery. This training may be offered by experienced workers, professional trainers, or representatives of equipment manufacturers.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)

Machinery mechanics must have good problem-solving abilities, as it is important for them to be able to discover the cause of a problem to repair it. Mechanical aptitude and manual dexterity are also important. Good reading comprehension is necessary to understand the technical manuals of a wide range of machines; and good communications skills are also essential in order for millwrights, mechanics and maintenance workers to understand the needs of other workers and managers. In addition, good physical conditioning and agility are necessary because repairers sometimes have to lift heavy objects or climb to reach equipment.

Industrial Machinery Mechanics and Millwrights - What They Do - Page 2

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