Assembler and Fabricator Careers

Significant Points

  • Most assemblers work on teams, making good communication skills and the ability to get along with others important.
  • A high school diploma is sufficient for most jobs, but experience and extra training is needed for more advanced assembly work.
  • Employment is projected to experience little or no change between 2008 and 2018.
  • Job opportunities are expected to be good in the manufacturing sector, particularly in growing, high-technology industries.

Nature of the Work

Assemblers and fabricators play an important role in the manufacturing process. They assemble both finished products and the pieces that go into them. The products they assemble using tools, machines, and their hands range from entire airplanes to children's toys. They fabricate and assemble household appliances, automobiles, computers, electronic devices, and more.

Changes in technology have transformed the manufacturing and assembly process. Modern manufacturing systems use robots, computers, programmable motion control devices, and various sensing technologies. These systems change the way in which goods are made and affect the jobs of those who make them. The more advanced assemblers must be able to work with these new technologies and use them to produce goods.

The job of an assembler or fabricator ranges from very easy to very complicated, requiring a range of knowledge and skills. Skilled assemblers putting together complex machines, for example, begin by reading detailed schematics or blueprints that show how to assemble the machine. After determining how parts should connect, they use hand or power tools to trim, shim, cut, and make other adjustments to fit components together and align properly. Once the parts are properly aligned, they connect them with bolts and screws or by welding or soldering pieces together.

Careful quality control is important throughout the assembly process, so assemblers look for faulty components and mistakes in the assembly process. They help to fix problems before more defective products are produced.

Manufacturing techniques are evolving away from traditional assembly line systems toward "lean" manufacturing systems, which are causing the nature of assemblers' work to change. Lean manufacturing uses teams of workers to produce entire products or components. Team assemblers may still work on an assembly line, but they rotate through different tasks, rather than specializing in a single task. The team also may decide how the work is assigned and how different tasks are performed. This worker flexibility helps companies cover for absent workers, improves productivity, and increases companies' ability to respond to changes in demand by shifting labor from one product line to another. For example, if demand for a product drops, companies may reduce the total number of workers producing it, asking the remaining workers to perform more stages of the assembly process. Some aspects of lean production, such as rotating tasks and seeking worker input on improving the assembly process, are common to all assembly and fabrication occupations.

Although most assemblers and fabricators are classified as team assemblers, others specialize in producing one type of product or perform the same or similar tasks throughout the assembly process. These workers are classified according to the products they assemble or produce. Electrical and electronic equipment assemblers, for example, build products such as electric motors, computers, electronic control devices, and sensing equipment. Automated systems have been put in place as many small electronic parts are too small or fragile for human assembly. Much of the remaining work of electrical and electronic assemblers is manual assembly during the small-scale production of electronic devices used in avionic systems, military systems, and medical equipment. Manual production requires these workers to use devices such as soldering irons. Electromechanical equipment assemblers assemble and modify electromechanical devices such as household appliances, CT scanners, or vending machines. The workers use a variety of tools, such as rulers, rivet guns and soldering irons. Coil winders, tapers, and finishers wind wire coil used in a variety of electric and electronic products, including resistors, transformers, generators, and electric motors.

Engine and other machine assemblers construct, assemble, or rebuild engines and turbines, and machines used in automobiles, construction and mining equipment, and power generators. Aircraft structure, surfaces, rigging, and systems assemblers assemble, fit, fasten, and install parts of airplanes, space vehicles, or missiles, including tails and wings, landing gear, and heating and ventilation systems. Structural metal fabricators and fitters cut, align, and fit together structural metal parts and may assist in welding or riveting the parts together. Fiberglass laminators and fabricators develop products made of fiberglass, mainly boat decks and hulls. Timing device assemblers, adjusters, and calibrators perform precision assembling or adjusting of timing devices within very narrow tolerances.

It has become more common to involve assemblers and fabricators in product development. Designers and engineers consult manufacturing workers during the design stage to improve product reliability and manufacturing efficiency. For example, an assembler may tell a designer that the dashboard of a new car design will be too difficult to install quickly and consistently. The designer could then redesign it to make it easier to install.

Some experienced assemblers work with designers and engineers to build prototypes or test products. These assemblers must be able to read and interpret complex engineering specifications from text, drawings, and computer-aided drafting systems. They also may need to use a variety of tools and precision measuring instruments.

Work environment. Most assemblers and manufacturers work in manufacturing plants. The working environment is improving, but varies by plant and by industry. Many physically difficult tasks have been automated or made easier through the use of power tools, such as tightening massive bolts or moving heavy parts into position. Assembly work, however, may still involve long periods of standing or sitting.

Most factories today are generally clean, well-lit, and well-ventilated; and depending on what type of work is being performed, they may also need to be dirt and dust-free. Electronic and electromechanical assemblers particularly must work in environments free of dust that could affect the operation of the products they build. Some assemblers may come into contact with potentially harmful chemicals or fumes, but ventilation systems and other safety precautions normally minimize any harmful effects. Other assemblers may come in contact with oil and grease, and their working areas may be quite noisy. Fiberglass laminators and fabricators are exposed to fiberglass, which may irritate the skin; these workers wear gloves and long sleeves and must use respirators for safety.

Most full-time assemblers work a 40-hour week, although overtime and shift work are common in some industries. Work schedules of assemblers may vary at plants with more than one shift.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

The education level and qualifications needed to enter these jobs vary depending on the industry and employer. While a high school diploma or GED is sufficient for most jobs, experience and extra training is needed for more advanced assembly work.

Education and training. Most applicants for assembler positions need only a high school diploma or GED, with workers learning the skills they need through on-the-job training, sometimes including employer-sponsored classroom instruction. Some employers may require specialized training or an associate degree for the most skilled assembly jobs. For example, jobs with electrical, electronic, and aircraft and motor vehicle products manufacturers typically require more formal education through technical schools.

Certification and other qualifications. Assembly workers must be able to follow instructions carefully, which may require some basic reading skills and the ability to follow diagrams and pictures. Manual dexterity and the ability to carry out complex, repetitive tasks quickly and methodically also are important. For some positions, the ability to lift heavy objects may be needed. Team assemblers also need good interpersonal and communication skills to be able to work well with their teammates. Good eyesight and manual dexterity is necessary for assemblers and fabricators who work with small parts. Plants that make electrical and electronic products may test applicants for color vision, because their products often contain many differently colored wires.

Certifications are not common for most types of assemblers and fabricators. However, many employers that hire electrical and electronic assembly workers, especially those in the aerospace and defense industries, require certifications in soldering, such as those offered by the IPC.

Advancement. As assemblers and fabricators become more experienced, they may progress to jobs that require greater skill and may be given more responsibility. Experienced assemblers may become product repairers, if they have learned the many assembly operations and understand the construction of a product. These workers fix assembled pieces that operators or inspectors have identified as defective. Assemblers also can advance to quality control jobs or be promoted to supervisor. Experienced assemblers and fabricators also may become members of research and development teams, working with engineers and other project designers to design, develop, and build prototypes, and test new product models.

Job Outlook

Employment is projected to experience little or no change, primarily reflecting productivity growth and strong foreign competition in manufacturing. Job opportunities are expected to be good for qualified applicants in the manufacturing sector, particularly in growing, high-technology industries.

Employment change. Employment of assemblers and fabricators is expected to experience little or no change between 2008 and 2018, declining by 2 percent. Within the manufacturing sector, employment of assemblers and fabricators will be determined largely by the growth or decline in the production of certain manufactured goods. In general, despite projected growth in the output of manufactured goods, overall employment is not expected to grow as the whole sector becomes more efficient and is able to produce more with fewer workers. However, some individual industries are projected to have more jobs than others. The aircraft products and parts industry is projected to gain jobs over the decade as demand for new commercial planes grows significantly. Thus, the need for aircraft structure, surfaces, rigging, and systems assemblers is expected to grow. Also, industries such as electromedical product manufacturing, which includes magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, pacemakers, and other devices, should grow with an aging population requiring additional medical technology.

In most other manufacturing industries, employment of assemblers and fabricators will be negatively affected by increasing productivity, which will come from improved processes, tools, and, in some cases, automation. Automation is limited in assembly by intricate products and complicated techniques. Automation will replace workers in operations with a large volume of simple, repetitive work. Automation will have less effect on the assembly of products that are low in volume or very complicated.

The use of team production techniques has been one factor in the continuing success of the manufacturing sector, boosting productivity and improving the quality of goods. Thus, while the number of assemblers overall is expected to decline in manufacturing, the number of team assemblers should grow as more manufacturing plants convert to using team production techniques.

Some manufacturers have sent their assembly functions to countries where labor costs are lower. Decisions by U.S. corporations to move manufacturing to other nations may limit employment growth for assemblers in some industries.

The largest increase in the number of assemblers and fabricators is projected to be in the employment services industry, which supplies temporary workers to various industries. Temporary workers are gaining in importance in the manufacturing sector and elsewhere, as companies facing cost pressures strive for a more flexible workforce to meet fluctuations in the market.

Job prospects. Job opportunities for assemblers are expected to be good for qualified applicants in the manufacturing sector, particularly in growing, high-technology industries, such as aerospace and electromedical devices. Some employers report difficulty finding qualified applicants looking for manufacturing employment. Many job openings will result from the need to replace workers leaving or retiring from this large occupational group.