Insights

A Career in Sheet Metal Manufacturing

06th January 2020
Tony Whittle celebrates 30 years at Washington Metalworks

We chatted to our CNC Machine Programmer, Tony Whittle to learn more about his 30-year career at Washington Metalworks. Tony talks about his achievements and obstacles over the years, explaining how the company’s commitment to technological advancement has helped him stay motivated. He discusses his career progression, his adjustment to new sheet metal manufacturing machinery and how he’s benefited from the business’s flexibility. 

A few months ago, I hit a pretty big milestone – I reached my 30th anniversary at Washington Metalworks. I can’t quite believe it’s been 3 whole decades since I first arrived as a nervous Youth Training Scheme trainee back in 1989. 

When I tell people how long I’ve worked at the company, I’m often met with responses like “How’ve you put up with the same place for so long?” or “Aren’t you bored of it?”. But in truth, at a place like Washington Metalworks – a place that’s always changing, that’s always investing in new technology, and that’s full of new opportunities – I rarely have a dull day. Sure, I have days where I’d rather be lounging in the Caribbean. Don’t we all? But for the most part, my job still excites me. 

After reflecting a lot on my sheet metal manufacturing career, I’ve decided to share some of my experiences with you all. The challenges I’ve faced. The opportunities I’ve seized. And the changes I’ve seen. Because I think - in doing so - I’m able to show how it’s possible to enjoy and thrive in your career, even when you’ve been doing it a long time. 

Career Progression in Sheet Metal Manufacturing 

At Washington Metalworks, there’s always room to progress. And this is something that’s helped to keep me motivated throughout my career. I don’t mind working hard because I know it’s going to pay off. The tiring shifts on the shop floor, the complicated machinery training sessions – they’re all worth it because they’ve helped me get where I am today. 

I began Washington Metalworks as part of a Youth Training Scheme, where I became a semi-skilled worker. After seeing the incredible proficiency and machinery that’s used in the sheet metal fabrication process, I was determined to progress further and become a metal worker myself – which is why I enrolled in the company’s metalwork apprenticeship scheme. 

I trained and worked hard as an apprentice until eventually, I was offered a permanent position as a CNC Punch Operator. It was a job that involved lots of coding and programming which, at times, could be a lot to get my head around. But I persevered. And it wasn’t long until I became a CNC sheet metal manufacturing expert. 

As Washington Metalworks grew, the business continued to invest in more and more CNC machinery. This meant that I was able to transfer my skills to the then-new CNC Laser department, where I learnt to operate multiple lasers in the laser cell. I soon developed a bit of a learning-addiction, seizing opportunities wherever I could. I learnt how to operate a forklift, how to CAD programs, and how to master the state-of-the-art Trumpf machinery. 

When the company expanded and moved to the larger plant in Gateshead, I was promoted to Team Leader of the Laser Department, where I was able to help others perfect their Trumpf skills and knowledge. After further progression, I moved to my current role – CNC Machine Programmer. Here, I programme machinery so that it’s specially tailored to each sheet metal fabrication project. 

I may have been here for 30 years, but I’ve been able to experience a range of jobs during that time. I’m always learning. Which means new doors are always opening. My advice to anyone who is planning to stay at a company for a long time is: always make sure there’s a ladder to climb. 

Adapting to New Production Technology 

Working at Washington Metalworks has taught me that if you don’t adapt to new technology, you will fall behind. To stay competitive, the company is always investing in new machinery, making it vital for employees to keep learning and adapting. Luckily for me, it’s kept things exciting. Because rather than using the same dusty tools for years on end, I’ve been working with some of the most advanced machinery in the world. 

Take the Trumpf 7000. It’s the world’s fastest robotic bending cell and one of only four in the UK. After being given the chance to complete extensive training in Germany, I’m now able to fabricate some of the most progressive sheet metalwork around. New technology creates new opportunities. So, instead of viewing it as tedious or intimidating - embrace it!

Exciting Company Growth  

Commitment to investment has also meant that we’ve grown significantly as a company over the years. When I first started, Washington Metalworks was a small team of 20 but now, it employees over 200 people and occupies a huge 130k square foot plant. That’s another reason I’ve loved my sheet metal manufacturing career. I’ve watched a small, local business grow into a successful, nationally-esteemed establishment – and I’ve loved being a part of that. 

The Benefits of Workplace Flexibility  

30 years of employment hasn’t been without its challenges. For most of my time at the plant, I worked towards a management career on the factory floor. However, after a football accident gave me a serious injury, that goalpost had to change - literally. Luckily, the flexibility of Washington Metalworks meant I was able to pursue a career in the CAD department. I developed new sheet metal fabrication skills and soon, I loved the new direction that my job was heading in. Life throws unexpected challenges, so having a flexible career that can adapt to these hurdles is a huge help.

Looking Ahead to Technological Advancement   

Even after all these years, I’m still thriving in my career and constantly learning. Washington Metalworks is growing faster than ever. Sheet metal manufacturing technology is advancing even further. And there are still plenty of opportunities on the horizon. 

So, if you’re looking for a career that never stands still, why not consider metalwork? We offer a range of apprenticeship schemes that are perfect for personal development and career progression - I’m a prime example of that! For more information, contact us now at contact@wmwgroup.co.uk.