FoodGrads Podcast Ep 37: What skills does a Millwright need to be successful? with Robert Cunliffe, Maintenance Manager/Millwright at Flamaglo Foods Limited

On episode 37 of the FoodGrads podcast we interviewed Robert Cunliffe, Maintenance Manager/Millwright at Flamaglo Foods Limited.

On this episode Robert and we talked about what it’s like being both a Maintenance Manager and Millwright Mechanic and why he decided to get into this career path. We spent a lot of time focusing on what Robert does daily and the overall work environment at a manufacturing plant. Veronica always wondered what the process was like getting a new piece of equipment from a mechanics point of view and how they actually learn to use such intricate pieces of equipment.

Finally, we picked Robert’s brain on what he thinks the future of being a millwright looks like, the skills he thinks are important for the job and his experience going for an electrical certification.

Show Notes

[00:00:27]  What do you do as a Millwright Mechanic / Maintenance Manager?  

  • Robert’s daily duties change to a certain degree every day
  • As a maintenance manager he helps his team with repairs. Being a manager he could allow these tasks to take up all the time but he tries to divide them.

[00:01:43] Can you explain the difference between the roles so we have a better understanding?

  • A millwright mechanic’s daily duties include looking after any breakdown, helping set up equipment, keeping the shop generally clean and talking with the operators to see how the machines are running.

[00:02:37] What does Flamingo foods do?

  • They produce dairy free yogurt from soy. Equipment includes pumps, kettles, tanks, filling machines and packing machines.  

[00:03:20] Are there’s multiple production lines that run throughout the day?

  • The facility is fairly small but there is multiple lines where they run one product at a time, phasing each of the yogurts between flavour batches.
  • The company has been around for 18 years and grown a lot. They moved to a new building where Robert was a part of the move

[00:05:38] Can you walk me through the steps you have taken to where you have gotten to today?

  • Robert fell into the role because he was good at working with his hands and more mechanically inclined. Initially, he started with a custom metal fabrication company that was just basically general labour. One day they needed a lift truck operator and he volunteered.  This led to the owner asking him to help with assembly of all the equipment in the building.
  • One day his lift truck mechanic was having a hard time doing some repairs on a lift truck. He couldn’t get it and Robert happened to over hear a conversation between the  mechanic and the owner. After throwing in his opinion they were able to get the lift truck to work. This allowed him to “fall” into the role.  

[00:07:35] Do you think that someone could fall into that role today?

  • It might be harder to do today but you likely would have to have some sort of mechanical aptitude. There is more of a focus on things today. As millwright you could be doing just doing machinery not moving the machines or doing rigging or crane operation.
  • It can be difficult to try to remember all the different areas but Robert personally enjoys the spread. Some people are specialist while others are midrange.

[00:09:28] Is there specific types of millwrights or is it an umbrella term?

  • You could be a millwright working on nothing but hydraulics or compression work. Both these fall under the millwright umbrella

[00:10:15] How do you learn about new pieces of equipment and continue to learn?

  • For Robert the easier way to learn is to be hands on. However, other individuals like to read the manual because most pieces of equipment come with one. A manual is typically divided into two different areas – one part for how you start up the machine and the other for troubleshooting.
  • It is useful to talk to the operators because they know the little tricks and everything. A person that has been running the same piece of equipment for years knows better than the mechanic if something is going wrong. They will call the department over and help with the diagnosis 

[00:13:26] What is the process of installing a new piece of equipment?

  • Initially, you need to determine the amount of floor space you will need and how you will reasonably get it to fit. Next you have to ensure that the electrical is going to be correct. Once you figure that you want to find a seller and you specify what kind of machine are you looking for such as what the machine does. Then the company will provide an associated cost. It is a pretty long process. The size of the company will determine how many people are involved.

[00:17:13] How do you make sure that things don’t get missed during the installation of a new piece of equipment?

  • Robert does miss things but that’s why it is so important to take notes and if you are allowed take recordings. You just have to stay organized.
  • For example, in the past they purchased a piece of equipment which was missing some pieces that might have gotten thrown out. These parts were critical to operation so they had to go back to the manufacture in Taiwan for the parts. It was a bit aggravating because the process went on longer than they would have liked.

[00:19:54] Could you clarify what the term 5S is?

  • Today the term is 5S and it is a general term basically used to describe keeping things clean and tidy around the shop and eliminating waste. If something isn’t used for two years you should throw it out because it is part of keeping things clean.  

[00:20:38] How do you deal with things that were stored in the past that you might not know what to do with it? How do you keep your shop organized? 

  • Robert also performs continuous maintenance and uses programs on his computer to log things like that. It has details like where a part goes in a machine or something like that. How things are stored depends on the company where smaller companies sometimes just throws things in bins that are labelled which makes it challenging to find spare parts.

[00:23:19] Your job can be very dangerous so how do you not “chicken” out and not do the job even if you are taking all the necessary precautions?  

  • Firstly, no matter where you work you have the right to refuse any job if you feel it is not safe or you haven’t had the proper training. Though Robert has done a lot of jobs where he thought it looked sketchy and probably shouldn’t have done it. He just believes that doing stuff like this is a part of his job so he goes ahead and does it because it is to keep the customer happy and if he doesn’t do it than the customers aren’t going to get their products.  Eventually, leading to the point where he is not going to get paid.

[00:25:25] Do you have an idea of what you think the field of being a millwright is going to look like in the next 10 years?  Would it generally be doing the same kind of duties or could that be evolving?

  • Robert believes that the only way that it will evolve is the machinery itself as it is getting more and more electronic. If a Millwright wants to work on a newer piece of equipment it would be helpful to have an electrical certification.
  • Robert could have gotten his 3098 or 4098 because he spent seven years working under an electrician when he first got into the trade and it was after the supervisor left the company that he realized that he could have had him sign off as the requirements didn’t require a written exam. Robert had the hours and was competent.
  • Eventually he decided to take some part-time schooling at Conestoga college where he got the full 4.0 GPA and failed the final exam. The test consisted of 135 multiple choice questions. However, if you don’t pass you still don’t see which questions you got wrong.  Robert can’t remember how many times that he redid the test but he decided to take four years off but had decided to not try again. It wasn’t until a friend at work pushed him to try again that he decided to go back. He went and saw a tutor and was successful.
  • Robert felt the difficulty came in the style of the test. If he had to go and actually make the repair than he could do it. He is a hands on person not a book smart kind of guy. There was even an instance where he did a job interview where HR asked him to take a test and Robert straight up asked her, “what are you looking for in your maintenance type? Because I knew they were looking for somebody that had strong PLC skills.” She said she was looking for somebody that has strong PLC skills. Robert openly admitted that he does not have strong PLC skills. She said, “Okay, thank you very much for your honesty and being so up front. Can I keep your name on file?  They parted ways but Robert is not ashamed to admit his inability.

[00:34:38] Veronica and Robert talk about honesty and the role of teams

  • Robert’s son is 22 years old and has managed to fall into a Millwright Apprenticeship straight out of high school. He i’s in his final term of his apprenticeship. Robert is hard on him about the test because he knows from personal experience how difficult it is. You just have to go in there prepared. Study, do whatever you got to do to try and get that information that was in that manual, stuck in your head and not your, your experience with the four years that you were doing here in apprenticeship.

[00:36:18] What advice would you give a student or a new graduate looking to enter in a career like yours?

  • Ask questions, ask questions.  Don’t be afraid to fail. Asking a question sometimes can be as hard or harder than actually failing. Even now there are things that Robert still feels that he can feel ashamed or afraid to ask. If somebody thinks that I should already know the answer to that question. And it might take me a few minutes to build up the courage to say but just go for it.

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