Redefining Craftsmanship
Today’s builders have data analytics skills that match their manual dexterity.
Sometimes you see things a hundred times or more before it hits you the image presented does not match the message it intended to convey.

Case in point: A common television ad of late for a fairly high-tech product. The message was about the quality that goes into “making” these devices. So far, so good. But the ad fades to a man decked in a flannel shirt, blue jeans and the obligatory well-groomed beard, eyeing with pride some woodworking project. I get it: Pride in workmanship. The skilled craftsman produces a fine item. The message and imagery are ageless. One problem, though: That’s not how it goes!

It’s been decades since I purchased an item that is not the result of vigorous, data-driven engineering, followed by a slew of process, manufacturing, quality, and even finance folks obsessed with the analyses, measurement, inspection and costing of every piece of anything that gets even close to the product. While I’d like to think some flannel-shirted woodworker hand-built a device, the reality is data, and more data, and a little data on top of that, are what it takes to turn a concept into a successful product.

Our industry may be the poster child for how craftsmanship continues to evolve. Time was, the operator was the sole process expert who could impact how a circuit board would be plated, or how tight the registration was. Now, equipment with sensors, computers, and vision systems unimaginable a few years ago are not just performing processing steps but also providing data to process engineering and machines up- and downstream to improve throughput and yield. Quality today has more to do with data “nerds” than the lone craftsman. Yes, we still need and value individual skills, and – make no mistake – fabricating or populating a circuit board continues to require dedicated, quality-conscious skilled labor. But the ratio of skilled labor touching product vs. staff with analytics skills collecting and deciphering data to improve efficiency and quality throughput has shifted.

In all industries, the goal is to design and produce high-quality, leading-edge products. Everyone wants to believe their product represents the best in craftsmanship, but maybe it’s time to redefine craftsmanship. I doubt that woodworker in the advertisement ever had a slew of people grill him on how much wood, varnish, paint and supplies were used per piece. No one ever asked that woodworker for a complete accounting of time spent in design, fabrication and assembly. Yet, each of those metrics is critical for the new benchmarks of craftsmanship.

Craftsmanship, by definition, is the quality of design and work of something that is made. Many, if not most, associate the term only with the work, not the design, and assume it means work done only by hand. Well, hands do operate complex machines, and hands do enable the collection and sharing of data in collaboration to improve quality and achieve the desired design. A craftsman needs to use the best available information to accomplish the goal.

Over and over, we hear the importance of measurement, and in every company across the globe, measurement is the tool of choice to ensure product is built to the highest quality. Measuring time, pieces, costs, overhead – and scrap (!): That’s the start of the craftsman’s database. Analyses, performed rapidly via artificial intelligence or through methodical review by trained staff, enable improvements and solutions to problems.

The technology available today is amazing compared to what was available in the past, and in many ways contributes to the redefinition of craftsmanship. The days when every task was done by hand, and hardware the only type of tool available, are long behind us. The craftsmen of today are not tied to tools of the past, nor are they intimidated by new technology, but instead rise to the challenge of harnessing the best available technology or tool to provide the instantaneous feedback necessary to build quality product. A craftsman is someone who takes that instantaneous feedback, translates it, and communicates or applies it as needed.

Some things have not changed. Pride and dedication remain the bedrocks of craftsmanship. Employees, be they on the shop floor or in the back offices or at final inspection, must be dedicated to continuous improvement and take pride in their work. Dedication and pride can be difficult to muster in an environment where the product, quality expectations and tools are constantly changing and when processes and components are constantly revised. Like every generation of worker who has strived for quality and being the best, however, the tools, parts and processes always evolve in a way that rewards those who are really craftsmen.

Maybe it’s time we think of craftsmanship in a more contemporary way. Circuit boards still need to be drilled, imaged, pressed, plated, depanelized, and inspected. Being a craftsman is not just about those processes, however. It includes the technology, equipment and analysis to make those pieces of equipment do more, faster and better. Being a craftsman today includes data analysis, programming, and making sure reports, certifications and final inspections receive the attention and pride that go into building product. Only together is there true contemporary craftsmanship.

Peter Bigelow
is president and CEO of IMI Inc.; His column appears monthly.