Getting Schooled in Finishing

Appears in Print as: 'Kirchner on Continuing Education'

Matt Kirchner proves it’s never too late to go back to school. He spent the summer learning more about finishing to become a better leader in the industry.


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In 1993, Michael Keaton as Jack Butler in Mr. Mom said “220, 221, whatever it takes.”

Two years later, Chevy Chase as Fletch famously said, “It’s all ball bearings nowadays.”

And if you need a movie reference that’s more recent than 25 years old, in 2002, Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can said, “Dr. Harris, do you concur?”

It’s likely we’ve all had a moment or two where we had to pretend we knew more about a topic than we actually did. During my career in manufacturing, my moment went on for decades.

“The solenoid on the pneumatics circuit is faulty,” our maintenance tech would say.

“Of course, the solenoid, what else would it be?”

“We can’t run the line until tomorrow. They’re working on a problem with the variable frequency drive.”

“Well, let me know how I can help,” I would offer. They never came back and asked. Not because I wasn’t genuine in my offer, but because they figured I couldn’t tell a variable frequency drive from a solenoid. They weren’t wrong.

This year, all of that changed. As the reality of the coronavirus crisis set in this past spring, and along with it the realization that I wouldn’t be traveling to see customers with our business development team, attending conferences, entertaining clients or even going into the office for quite some time, I went back to school.

Not school in the traditional sense, but school in the sense of what education will likely morph toward in the coming years: I enrolled in an online class on advanced manufacturing technology. 

In 40 hours of self-paced, competency-based e-learning featuring interactive experiences, video-game-quality graphics, virtual skills, self-reviews and quizzes, I gained the competencies that enabled me to obtain my Smart Automation Certification Alliance Associate 1 Basic Operations Certification in Industry 4.0. It was awesome!

For many of my years running finishing operations, I handled customer quotations. I knew how to read part dimensions and find the finishing specification, substrate material and potential fixture holes on a drawing, but I didn’t really know how to truly read a drawing. 

This summer, I learned about dimensioning linear and circular features and arcs. I now understand title, change, materials and tolerance blocks. I learned about control frames and the difference between a process drawing and an assembly drawing. Best of all, I no longer have to pretend to know what a datum and a datum feature are.

I learned about dimensional measurement, how to use a machinist’s rule and the difference between accuracy and precision. I can now use a caliper and a micrometer. 

Pneumatic and hydraulic systems are ubiquitous in finishing, but my knowledge of these systems ended there. In my interactive e-learning courses, I learned about the applications of pneumatic and hydraulic technology, fluid power circuits, pneumatic filters, directional control valves, solenoids and actuators. 

We went deep on electrical circuits and electric relay control. Alternating and direct current, voltage, resistance — I now understand all of those. For years, I had heard our maintenance and operations people talk about relay control circuits; AND, OR, NOT and NOR commands; memory; and seal-in circuits without any idea of what they meant. Now I know.

I studied basic robot operations, servo motors, robot safety and how to jog and home a robot. I created basic robot programs using Pmove, Grasp and Release commands. I learned about different types of robotic end-of-arm tools and grippers.

Our operations people would speak of inductive and capacitive proximity sensors, of photo-eyes and photoelectric sensors and limit switches. What used to be like a foreign language to me no longer is.

Perhaps the most fascinating subject I learned about was the Industrial Internet of Things: smart sensors, smart devices, data analytics and the fascinating future of data-driven manufacturing.

This technology is the lifeblood of our finishing operations. While I was able to run successful finishing operations without deep knowledge of complex manufacturing technology, the truth is the knowledge I gained this summer would have made me a better executive. 

Had I known then what I know now, I would have been able to relate even better to my team members and customers and been even more valuable to them in solving problems. If I had to do it over again, I would have invested 40 hours in learning this technology before I started my career in finishing, not 20 years later.

If you’re leading a finishing team but didn’t grow up in the finishing business; found your way to our great sector through a route other than operations; or ever found yourself wondering what a relay, solenoid or a datum is, maybe it’s time for 40 hours of continuing education.

As Rodney Dangerfield demonstrated in his 1986 classic, not only is it never too late to go Back to School, it can be a whole lot of fun!