State of the Industry: A Q&A with Manufacturing’s MC Tony Gunn
As the face of MTDCNC, host of the The Gunn Show podcast, author of two books, and experienced programmer and machinist, Tony Gunn has seen it all (and if you’re in manufacturing, you’ve likely seen him).
During his 20+ years in manufacturing, Tony has witnessed how things are made end-to-end on a global scale, and interviewing some of the world’s top engineers keeps him on the front lines of global innovation.
Tony is typically the one dishing out the questions, but In the Shop flipped the switch to pick his brain on a variety of topics – from the role of automation in manufacturing, to the labor shortage, his greatest career advice and more.
Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and why you’re so passionate about amplifying our industry’s voices?
Of course! First off, it is innately in me to be of service. Growing up, I was always involved with the church and my community, and later in life I created a natural healing company that donated 100% of the profits to charity. Service has always been what drives me to do anything in life.
But I didn’t get into this career on purpose. Frankly, I needed a job with good insurance.
After my house burned down, I was living out of my car. I wound up taking a pretty monotonous job on a press machine pushing the same two buttons every day, and over time, my curiosity grew for what else the manufacturing industry had to offer. I learned how to program machines line by line, and eventually became VP of a division at an accessory company. This took me around the world to over 50 countries. I had the opportunity to learn from some of the most brilliant people how almost everything is created, whether that was in a garage or at NASA.
When COVID hit, everything changed; I wasn’t able to travel and ended up working two jobs to make ends meet. I ultimately quit both jobs and set off backpacking with my family through Mexico for a few months. Then MTD reached out – I couldn’t believe I was being given the chance to work with a company that supports an entire industry (one that’s often undervalued, at that) to help give people a voice. I jumped at the opportunity, and have been here for almost 2 years now!
You talk to a lot of people in your line of work – what does everybody in the industry seem to be talking about right now?
The hot topic right now – and deservedly so – is automation. Whether it’s robots or cobots, bar feeds, pallet changing systems or otherwise, everyone is getting creative when it comes to automating their processes.
Also the labor shortage, and how we can increase education and awareness around the amazing capabilities of automation in manufacturing – that’s what’s needed to attract the younger, tech-savvy generations. Considering the sheer lack of people in today’s workforce (there’s simply a smaller number of people in GenX than there are Baby Boomers and Millennials), our industry is feeling the impact.
There’s significant overlap with these topics: Instead of throwing people at the problem, we have to invest in automation. By embracing “the new night shift crew” as people are calling it, we can do more with a limited amount of time. This won’t cut job opportunities, but it will allow humans to spend less time working undesirable shifts and more time with their families.
Gaining time back in our days allows us to focus on creative solutions. If we stay creative, then we don’t need to worry about the “lack thereof,” but instead how we’re going to participate in “what’s coming next?”
Where do you see opportunity in the manufacturing industry right now?
The short answer? Everywhere. There’s an entire generation of manual machinists with decades of tribal knowledge getting ready to retire, and opportunity lies in every space they leave behind.
Any young person looking for a hands-on career has a wide open spot for them – in welding alone, there’s currently a 400,000 person skills gap.
Simultaneously, the role of automation in manufacturing is expanding rapidly. The more we look to automate labor-style positions like welding, the more positions become available to train people on how that technology works.
Whether it’s in programming, accounting, robotics, sales or otherwise, manufacturing continues to offer more and more opportunities for a fulfilling career: Do you love video games? See what you can create through a robot. Interested in business? Companies everywhere need people to manage their facilities. Just find the place your heart will find the most joy.
“Take a look around you: What do you value in your life outside of the people you love? Is it the car you’re driving? The computer you’re on? Saving the planet through cleaner resources? Traveling? Everything around you is being made by our industry, and we are only limited by our creativity.”
In what ways have you seen the industry evolve over the course of your career, and how has the role of automation in manufacturing impacted that?
I’m blown away by the evolution of CNC machining. Going from manual to 3, to 5, to 9-axis milling, automating processes using robots, cobots, pallet change, bar feeders, and intelligent software – at this point, what we’re able to create is really only limited by our imagination.
20 years ago, it was more labor-intensive to create whatever we wanted; there were more tool and die rooms needed to support manufacturing processes, and things like 3D printing were only in the imagination.
The complexity, speed, efficiency, and precision of today’s processes is allowing us to pull a part right off of a machine and put it straight into a box. In the past, you might have needed 3 or 4 tumbling, deburring, or polishing processes before it was ready.
Do you have any predictions for how the industry will change over the next five years? How about 50?
In the next 5 years, there will be a far greater number of automated setups at shops.
But further down the line, there’s a somewhat radical concept I’ve read about in a few books that I think has potential to come to fruition: in maybe 50 or so years, shops will be able to mostly run themselves. This will allow us humans to get back to doing what we love. For a lot of us that is manufacturing, but for others maybe that’s music, or art, or traveling – whatever it might be, there’s an idea that we’ll only spend about 4 hours per week doing “work.”
A more far-fetched result of this that I find interesting (although it’s difficult to envision exactly how it would pan out) is that we’ll actually shift our business model and trade ideas for money instead of just parts. We’ll have automated part making so perfectly that we’ll be able to share our wisdom in exchange for whatever lifestyle we choose.
Final question! What advice do you have for others thinking about joining the manufacturing industry?
For anyone looking to “get in,” you’ll get in. But there is a pathway that can make you more successful.
There’s real value in gaining education first. I wish I’d gone to a trade school first; you’ll often walk out with zero debt, and walk into a door quicker than someone who is there to learn for the first time. With that being said, many companies are hiring straight out of high schools and offering on the job training for those willing to put forth the effort.
Keep in mind that there is no age limit in this industry! I just interviewed someone who was in the medical field for 20 years who just switched into manufacturing, and she absolutely loves it.
I’ve learned that it’s critical to remain as open-minded and curious as you can. No one knows it all, this industry is evolving too quickly.
This sector is filled with really admirable people; creative, inspiring, resilient people. It’s also incredibly tight-knit and we’re all only a couple degrees away from knowing everyone in our industry. Use this to your advantage: act as a sponge, listen to your elders, and even if you disagree with people, use everything you learn to become the best version of yourself.
Lastly, avoid bottlenecking yourself into doing something you don’t love just for money – chase joy and money will follow.
Any closing remarks?
I’d like to make a statement in the hopes that someone reads this who knows nothing about our industry: if you’re looking for a career that allows you to go home every day feeling proud of what you’re doing, look no further.
Of course there are struggles – things happen, machines break. But ultimately, we go home at night feeling satisfied because we know that we’ve created something that can help someone.
Take a look around you: What do you value in your life outside of the people you love? Is it the car you’re driving? The computer you’re on? Saving the planet through cleaner resources? Traveling? Everything around you is being made by our industry, and we are only limited by our creativity.
Tony Gunn started his career in manufacturing over 20 years ago. He is currently the face and voice of MTDCNC, and works to shine a spotlight on the incredible people, products, and companies that exist in manufacturing. Learn more about the MTDCNC news channel at mtdcnc.com, or follow Tony on LinkedIn to stay up to date on our industry’s latest happenings.