In our first of many in a series of “Workforce Insights” articles, we will be meeting with regional employers to understand what employment opportunities and career pathways exist, the function of the business, and how career-seekers can Get Connected!
Many of us long-time Rockfordians are familiar with the “Sundstrand” name – a historic manufacturer in Rockford known for its automatic lathe and hydraulic milling machines. What we believed to be long gone is actually still alive within the Bourn & Koch Machine Tool Company, who supports some of the Sundstrand machinery.
Bourn & Koch provides precision automated machine tool solutions for the global manufacturing community. They specialize in gear manufacturing equipment and precision grinding machines with the ability to specially engineer custom solutions for some of the most challenging manufacturing applications. They support 28 American Machine Tool Companies with repair parts, field service, retrofit & rebuild. Over 2,500 years of engineering expertise in their archives allows them to engineer custom solutions for today’s manufacturing market while keeping the machines that built American industry alive.
To take a deeper dive into the work done at Bourn and Koch, The Workforce Connection’s Amanda Sink interviewed Todd Wells, Director of Operations and a Board of Directors member for The Workforce Connection board, and Charles Spray, electrical assembly lead. This interview will easily break down what a career-seeker could expect by joining Bourn & Koch’s team.
Interview with Bourn & Koch
Amanda: What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
Charles: We repair, remanufacture, and build new machinery, and we take on new skills and machine processes that have not been done before. We take the new challenges on, and actually build a machine that will do a new process. We remanufacture a lot of old machines that come in – they’re rusted, peeling paint, they’re falling apart, basically. We blast clean them up, then we repaint them, and put new control systems on them, then we rewire a whole new panel and controls, and we replace all of the mechanical and electrical parts that need to be replaced, depending on how the customer wants it repaired. It will look new!
Amanda: Tell me about your role, how you got to where you’re at, and what got you into this type of work.
Charles: I worked many years in circuit boards and other maintenance jobs. I just happened to be in one of those predicaments where a lot of lay-off were happening, and I was jumping job to job trying to stay in one, but companies were just shut down or moving to different areas, so I did not have a whole lot of luck at that time. Then the last place that shut down on me, they had The Workforce Connection come in and talk to us when they were closing the facility. That is when I signed up through The Workforce Connection.
I had gone through the meetings to find out the information and I found that there were two ways you can go into it: educational or they can help you get into another position. Well, I already had the skills for most of the electrical, but I have not worked in the high-power and machine tooling, so I took advantage of it and talked to The Workforce Connection. They helped me get into the tool company here, so that is when I started doing electrical paneling and wiring of the machines at Bourn and Koch. I have grown new skills and that’s helped me be a team lead at Bourn and Koch.
Amanda: What skills do you use most on a day-to-day basis?
Charles: Most of my day-to-day skills I use my electrical and mechanical background, as well as the new skills I have learned as a lead of the team. A large part of that is helping the other team members in my department and other departments on questions that may come up on the machine builds. For example, we may need to help find a better location to run some wires for a sensor or motor, or we may find problems on the wire prints and I would help find a solution for those problems. That is where the background comes in: always learning new skills every day as you grow with the company.
As far as schematics go, the engineers work hard to lay it all out for you, but you will have to know which symbols go with which component you are working on. It takes 3-4 months to really understand the components you are working with and then following the instructions on the schematics.
When we get into the machines, it depends. If we’re working on a modern one that we build repeatedly, everything is already laid out on the machine. If you end up with a special or new machine, we have to find out new ways to run the wires on it. That’s where the documentation and note-taking is important because we have to give that information to the engineers so they can put it in the prints and update work instruction for future machines.
You do have to have a good understanding of what voltage is, so when you’re working with live-voltage you have to know the arc flash and what dangers are involved.
Sometimes we get into the mechanics of the machine, so you have to be able to read the blueprints, understand the setups for machines, – like loads on the bearings or certain movements on the machines – and to make share nothing is binding.
After we get everything up and running, we run the controls, which is where we set limits, speeds, make sure the programs are loaded in, we set up all the sensors and presser switches before running the machine, and then we do a test-run on the machine.
Amanda: On average, how many projects or machines are you completing or working on in a given day or are they long-term projects?
Charles: It depends on the size of the machine. For smaller machines, they range from 2-4 months, but typically fall closer to 2 months. For larger machines, it can take up to 6-7 months, and up to a year for new machines that have never been built, before they are completed.
Amanda: Do the staff typically work collaboratively on a project or do they work on their own “sections”?
Charles: Most of the time they’re working on their own sections of the machine. I try to have the same person build the panel all the way up to starting up the machine, so that they have the whole knowledge of the machine, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
Amanda: When you think about these positions, how do you determine what makes someone a really good fit for the business and the occupation?
Charles: I look at a few different things when I do interviews. I look at the way their attitude is and how they respond to certain questions. You also have to look at what background they have come from, for example 10 years of maintenance might not exactly count, because we’re actually manufacturing new machines, so there will be different problems than in maintenance.
Todd: Charles is operating on the front edge of state-of-the-art technology. Our new machines are very advanced and you don’t just get that out of the market, so you have to teach that. So, back to what Charles said: attitude, attitude, attitude. If you can’t teach someone because they already know everything, then this is a doomed relationship. They have to be ready and willing to learn from Charles, and if they’re open-minded enough to go to school and get some supplemental learning – even better.
Amanda: For someone who’s looking at this thinking, “this sounds really interesting to me, I would love to get into this”, what education or experience are you looking for, specifically for this position of an electrical or mechanical assembler?
Charles: We would like some past experience but we have had some guys come in with just a high school diploma. On the electrical side, something that would really help is to be able to do the schematics and understand most components? On the mechanical side, you would want blueprint reading and measurement reading, so they can do torque readings on the machines. That’s a basic start-up and you can build from there. We have guys that came in electrical that are now mechanical and vice versa. It all depends on which way they want to push their career towards and what they want to learn.
Amanda: That’s encouraging to hear there isn’t a hard stop on the educational requirement because we see this issue in our workforce region a lot where jobs will require a degree, even though the job doesn’t necessarily require that level of education, which can create issues adding talent.
Amanda: Let’s use an example of someone who just graduated from high school, they’ve done various labor jobs, and they get a certification that teaches them a little about electrical or even construction… Are they able to learn on-the-job the skills that they need for this job or would they need to start at another position and work their way up to this position?
Charles: What I would do for electrical, is they would come in to panel build first, which is the lowest level in our electrical area and work their way up to starting up the machine. It’s not a one-week process, it does take time. That’s pretty much the same for mechanical. We wouldn’t just throw them into a major part of the machine without building up the necessary skills.There is a built-in career pathway, where you can start at one point and move through the machine based on your skills and experience.
Amanda: Since this position does look for a bit of experience, what success stories have you had with youths or someone without the experience necessary that moved up to the electrical or mechanical departments of operations?
Charles: There’s one guy who started as a mechanical assembly and has worked his way up through the major parts of the machines, he’s done electrical, he’s done inspection, and now he’s our quality tech that checks on the quality of the machines!
Amanda: What are the salary ranges for this position? I know much of it relies on your experience and knowledge, but just an idea.
Todd: I don’t know that we have anyone who makes minimum wage here. The answer to your question isn’t straightforward because we have an internally-built software which assigns dollar values to every “role” of the business. Every skill is broken down into a “role” and as the individual learns more definable and trainable skills, they acquire more compensation for that new role.
What I have in this system is the ability to say, what am I going to teach this person? Let’s say we start at a minimum wage employee, so they have an employee handbook and understand the rules, then we’re going to teach them how to clock a job, material handling, how to use a crane and forklift, which we teach in-house with our certified trainer, and some basic mechanical assembly and panel wiring. And what this is going to tell me is about how much I should be paying this person while I’m teaching them, and how much trainee time on the job and any third-party training is required to get them to this salary level.
Amanda: That is really impressive!
Todd: I don’t think we can survive as a business for the long-haul if we don’t do something. We, management staff here, decided in 2019 that this is a mission critical issue for us. If we’re to be in this business longer than the companies that were in Rockford that didn’t sustain, we needed this.
Amanda: Do you take general applications for people who know they want to work for Bourn & Koch, but they aren’t sure where they would fit in?
Charles: We start at maintenance and facilities, so if they have a good attitude and they know they want to try, the best thing is to come here and interview here. If they show the skills and desire to try and learn, it’s a good possibility we can bring them in and try running a machine.
Todd: We had a gentleman that worked here awhile back who seemed to want to make more money. When we put up the job postings, he was urged to apply for cross-training and development. Our interest was to develop those skills outside of his current area and if we were busy enough, he could be allocated to the more advanced-skill work, and if business slowed pace, he could float back to the other area. We are required to post jobs internally for 1-2 weeks and each posting is an opportunity to grow from within.
About Bourn & Koch and How to Apply
Bourn & Koch has a machine shop, assembly floor, customer care team, engineering department, and administrative staff at the Rockford, Illinois facility. They continue to support a rich legacy of American Made machine tools and technology through service and spare parts. B&K actively leverages this history through innovation to design, build, and supply new machines and technology right here in Rockford, IL. Send them your resume if you’re interested in being a part of their team. Bourn & Koch is actively accepting applications for mechanical assemblers and electrical assemblers. Apply by sending your resume to firstname.lastname@example.org.