I once worked at a ski factory.
I started just after college when I had to come back home to live with my Mom. Again. The US Government has instituted a huge hiring freeze and all the engineering companies in Arizona had stopped hiring. All my interviews were suddenly canceled and the only job openings were part-time this, or odd-job that.
Fortunately, a buddy from high school told me that the ski factory near where I grew up in Washington was hiring direct pressure molders. So, with no prospects as an entry-level engineer, I moved back home to build on skis.
Yet, the ski factory job turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Yes, it is boring, dirty work. Yes, it was full of the same high school knuckleheads I tried to get away from when I left town after graduation. And, yes, it was a monotonous, assembly-line, connect-the-dots style manufacturing gig. However, what the job lacked in difficulty, it made up for in processes.
Tons of processes!
What I thought was a job with zero engineering skills turned out to be chocked full of engineering challenges. There were dozens of problems hidden inside every aspect of ski production too. These problems spanned the gauntlet of factory issues from employee training and product quality to chemical safety and work floor hazards. Even shipping completed products and keeping up with the logistics of new parts required serious processes to keep everything moving. One hiccup and the whole factory would grind to a halt.
It doesn’t keep more engineering than that.
Additionally, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to make a real product until I had to make a set of skis myself. When you have to assemble a set of skis — with the correct part sizes and colors in the correct order, using a precise amount of dangerous chemical resins, and do it while on a count-down clock to get the skis into a heated, direct-pressure press before the resin catches fire — you gain serious respect for hand-made products. Now do that 30-40 times a shift.
I experience every part of factory life and did just about every job they had open. Side-wall sanding, mold cleaning, ski production, snowboard fabrication, warehouse searching, fiberglass weaving, and even chemical spill cleanup, to name a few.
However, the best job I had at the ski factory was when they discovered I had a degree in engineering. Suddenly I was called into the front office to support logistics, daily production counts, and support the factory’s night-shift engineer. After not thinking I was ever going to be in an engineering job I was plucked off the factory floor to become an engineer’s assistant.
And that’s when things got interesting.
The factory engineer taught me firsthand how to test the production quality of every ski and snowboard they made: by breaking them! I went from making skis and snowboards to snapping thousands of skis and snowboards into pieces, all in an attempt to judge their quality. A product with not enough resin would snap like a twig while a product with too much resin would bend like a green branch. Both were bad and the discovery of these problems usually meant bad news for the employee that built them.
You could say that I ran a ski and snowboard execution chamber whose function kept customers safe while putting poorly performing employees on notice. This made being the engineer’s assistant both a good and bad job. Good in that he taught me how products that might look well made on the surface can still include serious flaws. Bad in that my job resulted in a lot of people losing theirs.
There is still nothing like the snap of a $1,000 snowboard to show you that an excellent-looking product does not equate to a good-quality product.
And that is the point.
Doing the work yourself can show you how to identify quality. It can also show you how to identify problems. However, if you don’t know how something is built, you will never know what is lurking just under the surface of that pretty facade.