Academic journal article Journal of Technology Studies

21st Century Manufacturing Supervisors and Their Historical Roots

Academic journal article Journal of Technology Studies

21st Century Manufacturing Supervisors and Their Historical Roots

Article excerpt

This article provides a perspective of the past and present roles of the manufacturing supervisor with a specific focus on new skills requirements.1 Within the structure of manufacturing management, the supervisor plays a key role in implementing today's complex automated manufacturing technologies. The supervisor is at the bottom of the management pyramid-the one with upfront responsibility for machines, equipment, and tools, and for those who use them to produce a product. In the past, men who held the position were undisputed "bosses of the shop." Today's companies refer to supervisors by different job titles, and although women make up a significant portion of the profession, it is not uncommon to hear employees refer to their supervisors as foremen (Walker & Guest, 1952; Walker, Guest, & Turner, 1956). Some refer to the position as first-level supervisor (Marcus & Segal, 1989). But the term team leader has recently come into use with the trend toward a teaming philosophy for workers.

Because many manufacturing firms use automation technologies in their competitive strategy (Skinner, 1996), production employees must know the meaning of the latest acronyms such as CAD-CAM, CIM, FMS, JIT, MRP/MRP II, SPC, SDWT, and TQM (defined later in this article), and they must be technologically literate in them. These complex requirements in employee-technology relationships have made an impact on the role of supervision. It has changed from that of directing and controlling employees to that of effectively leading the improvement of employee performance (Markland, Vickery, & Davis, 1998; Polakoff, 1990; Skinner, 1996; Stevenson, 1999).

This new leadership role for supervisors can best be understood in a historical context of evolving manufacturing technologies, workforce characteristics, and skills used. This is presented in two parts. The first is a historical perspective of the supervisor's job and how it has changed during the 20th century. The second section describes the supervisor's job in the context of modern-day complexities.

Historical Perspective

In the early part of the 20th century, the Industrial Revolution was well on its way to creating a highly profitable system of mass production. Factories had become significantly larger in contrast to the relatively small job shops of the late 1800s. Production emphasized very large lot sizes. As opposed to single structures, most factories were made up of several buildings. The "American System" (Marcus & Segal, 1989, p. 72) of manufacturing now stressed precision and exactness in production so that parts could be interchanged easily during assembly. The early 20th century factories were characterized by large-scale production machine tools for such processes as sheet metal stamping, grinding, milling, and complex systems of organized mechanical assembly processes utilizing specialized jigs and fixtures. However, on the downside was the working environment. Many rotating shafts, pulleys, and belts used for drive mechanisms in these production machines of the early 20th century were fully exposed and in proximity to the worker who, by the way, was expected to work longer and harder than what is expected today. Worker fatigue and these types of dangerous conditions were undoubtedly a significant safety factor to be considered in those days (Khol & Mraz, 1997; Marcus & Segal, 1989; Williams, 1987).

At the turn of the century, the face of manufacturing in the United States was almost universally White and male. This was because highly skilled machinists and mechanics were initially needed to operate machinery and perform assembly processes. Minorities and women were hard-pressed to gain access to apprenticeships in these relatively high-paying jobs. However, industrialists such as Henry Ford and efficiency experts such as Frederick W. Taylor revamped ways in which production jobs were performed. Jobs that required highly skilled worker performance were simplified. …

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