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Textile machinery operators tend machines that manufacture a wide range of textile products. Hosiery, skirts, and socks are familiar examples of these products, but many people are surprised to learn that textile products are used in such things as roofs, tires, and roads. There are many phases in the textile production process, and operators' duties and responsibilities depend on the product and the type of machinery in use. Machinery operators control equipment that cleans, cards, combs, and draws the fiber; spins the fiber into yarn; and weaves, knits, or tufts the yarn into textile products. They are responsible for numerous machines that they start, stop, clean, and monitor for proper functioning.
The textile production process begins with the preparation of synthetic or natural fibers for spinning. Fibers are cleaned and aligned through carding and combing. To prepare the fiber for the spinning process, very short fibers and any foreign matter are removed and the fibers are drawn into a substance called sliver. During this process, different types of fibers may be combined to give products the desired textures, durability, or other characteristics. This is how "50 percent cotton, 50 percent polyester" blends, for example, are created. Operators constantly monitor their machines during this stage, checking the movement of the fiber, removing and replacing cans of sliver, repairing breaks in the sliver, and making minor repairs to the machinery.
The full cans of sliver are then taken to the spinning area. Spinning draws and twists the sliver to produce yarn which is then wound onto conical structures called bobbins or cones. This is an automated version of the old fashion spinning wheel.
Some workers oversee machinery that makes manufactured fibers. These fibers, used in many textile products, are created from materials that, unlike cotton, wool, and flax, are not fibrous in their natural form. To make this fiber, wood pulp or chemical compounds are dissolved or melted in a liquid which is then extruded, or forced, through holes in a metal plate, called a spinneret. The sizes and shapes of the holes in the spinneret determine the shape and the uses of the fiber. Workers adjust the flow of fiber base through the spinneret, repair breaks in the fiber, and make minor adjustments to the machinery. Because this fiber is created by a chemical process, the majority of these workers are employed by chemical companies, not textile mills.
When the yarn is ready, it is taken to be woven, knitted, tufted, or bonded with heat or chemicals. Each of these processes produces a different type of textile product and requires a different type of machine. For example, woven fabrics are made on looms that interlace the yarn. Knit products, such as socks or women's hosiery, are produced by intermeshing loops of yarn. Carpeting is made through the tufting process, in which the loops of yarn are pushed through a material backing. Although the processes are now highly automated, these concepts have been used for many centuries to produce textile products.
Even though operators work with many different kinds of machines, they share many responsibilities. Each operator oversees numerous machinesrepairing breaks in the yarn, monitoring the supply of yarn, and making minor repairs to the machinery. As increasingly automated machinery is used in textile mills, more processes are controlled by computers, making it possible for each operator to monitor a larger area or number of machines. Because of the complexity of many machines, operators often specialize in a particular type of machine. In addition, operators prepare the machinery prior to a production run and help maintain the equipment. For example, they adjust the timing on a machine, thread the harnesses that create patterns in textile goods, and repair machinery.
Once the yarn has been woven, knitted, or tufted, the resulting fabric is ready to be dyed and finished either at the textile mill or at a plant specializing in textile finishing. Because of the variety of consumer preferences, manufacturers print and dye textiles in thousands of different designs and colors. Depending upon the end use of the yarn, it may be dyed before or after it is woven, knitted, or tufted. Some fabric is treated before it is dyed to remove other chemical additives that could affect the quality of the finished product.
In addition to dyeing and printing, products are often finished by treating them to prevent excessive shrinkage, to provide strength, to make them stain-resistant, or to give a silky luster. In the production of hosiery and socks, for example, the stocking or sock is placed on a form and then exposed to steam and heat to give it shape.
Most textile machine operators work in textile mills or chemical plants. Working conditions depend upon the age of the facility or equipment and its degree of modernization. Newer facilities usually offer better ventilation and climate control that reduce potential problems caused by airborne fibers and fumes. Workers in areas with high levels of these airborne materials often use protective glasses and masks that cover their nose and mouth.
Although some of the newer machinery has reduced the level of noise, workers in some areas still must wear ear protection. Because many machines operate at high speeds, workers must be careful not to wear clothing or jewelry that could get caught in moving parts. In addition, extruding and forming machine operators wear protective shoes and clothing when working with some types of chemical compounds.
Most textile machinery operators worked a standard 40-hour week. Because many textile and fiber mills operate 24 hours a day, night and weekend shifts are common. However, many employers use a rotating schedule of shifts so operators don't consistently work nights or weekends. Operators are on their feet moving between machines during most of their shift.
Although workers have traditionally worked under close supervision, new management philosophies are placing an increasing emphasis on teamwork, which will allow operators greater interpersonal contact and more initiative.
Textile machinery operators held about 281,000 jobs in 1994. Most of these workers were employed in weaving, finishing, yarn, and thread mills. Knitting mills and manufactured fiber producers also employed a substantial number of these workers. Most extruding and forming machine operators were employed in chemical plants.
North Carolina was the leading State in the employment of textile workers, accounting for about 30 percent of the total. Georgia and South Carolina combined accounted for another 30 percent. Most of the remaining workers were employed in other southern States and in the northeast.
Education and training are becoming increasingly important for working with complex machinery and advanced manufacturing methods. A high school diploma in addition to extensive technical training is becoming a prerequisite for entry to many jobs. This training may be obtained, in part, at a formal training institution such as a technical school. Extensive on-the-job training by more experienced workers or representatives of machinery manufacturers is also common.
As the textile industry becomes more highly automated, operators will need to understand complex machinery and be able to diagnose problems. Because textile machinery is increasingly controlled electronically, many operators will need good computer skills.
Physical stamina and manual dexterity are important attributes for these jobs. In addition, self-direction and interpersonal skills are becoming more important for textile machinery operators. Organizational changes that promote teamwork and encourage fewer levels of management are leading operators to assume greater responsibility and to take more initiative.
Textile machinery operatives can advance in several ways. Some workers become instructors and train new employees. Others advance by taking positions requiring higher skills and greater responsibility. First-line supervisory positions usually are filled from the ranks of skilled operators.
Employment of textile machinery operators is expected to decline over the 1994-2005 period. Changing trade regulations and greater productivity through the introduction of labor-saving machinery are the major factors influencing employment in this occupation. In spite of the projected decline, thousands of openings will be created annually as workers change occupations or leave the labor force.
The greatest uncertainty facing textile machinery operators is the future of trade. Recent trade agreements, like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, will help to open export markets for textiles produced in the United States. At the same time, they will dismantle much of the protection that has been provided to the industry for decades. While the textile industry is highly efficient and will be able to compete in many product lines, the more labor-intensive U.S. apparel industry will be more adversely affected. Because the apparel industry is the largest consumer of American-made textiles, this will negatively affect the demand for textile machinery operators.
Textile firms will respond to this growing competition by investing in new equipment, reorganizing their work practices, and developing new uses for textiles. New machinery, such as faster shuttleless and air jet looms and computer-integrated manufacturing processes, increase productivity by producing goods at a faster rate. They also allow each operator to monitor a larger number of machines. Many factories are also reorganizing production floors to further increase productivity and to give workers more responsibility. In addition, textile firms are developing new uses for textiles that replace non-textiles, such as wallcoverings, medical products, and dome covers.
Because the textile industry is highly automated, persons with technical skills and some computer training will have the best opportunities. In particular, bleaching and dyeing machine operator employment is expected to grow in coming years. Also, extruding machine operators who produce synthetic fibers will encounter growing employment opportunities as the demand for synthetic fiber grows.
Average weekly earnings for production workers in the textile and manufactured fiber industries were $380 in 1994, compared to about $510 for production workers throughout all manufacturing industries. Earnings vary significantly, depending upon the type of mill, job specialty, shift, and seniority. Average weekly earnings for production workers in the chemical industry, where most extruding machine operators are found, were around $660 in 1994.
Benefits usually include paid holidays and vacations, health and life insurance, a retirement plan, and sick leave. Some firms provide on-site daycare facilities. Employees may also receive discounts in company-owned outlet stores.
Metalworking and plastics-working machine operators perform similar duties and have many of the same entry and training requirements as extruding and forming machine operators and tenders, textile machine operators and tenders, and textile bleaching and dyeing machine operators. Setters and setup operators in other industriesmetal fabrication and plastics manufacturing, for exampleperform duties comparable to those of textile machine setters and setup operators.
Information about job opportunities in textile and synthetic fiber production is available from local employers or local offices of the State employment service.
For general information on careers, technology, or trade regulations in the textile industry, write to:
American Textile Manufacturers Institute, Inc., 1801 K St. NW., Suite 900, Washington, DC 20006.
Institute of Textile Technology, P.O. Box 391, Charlottesville, VA 22901.
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