Rubber goods production workers make items out of natural and synthetic rubber materials. They soften, shape, cure, cut, mold, and otherwise treat rubber to make thousands of different products, from household products to parts for spacecrafts.
History of Rubber Goods Production Worker Career
Natural rubber is a pliable, stretchy material made from the milky juice of various tropical plants. Rubber was given its name in 1770 when a chemist observed it could be used to rub away, or erase, pencil marks. The earliest commercial use for rubber was in the 1840s when Charles Goodyear, an American, invented the vulcanization process. Vulcanization improves the properties of rubber, making it more elastic, stronger, and more durable. Beginning as early as 1845, long before bicycles and motor vehicles became common, vulcanized rubber was occasionally used in wheels. Rubber tire-making became an industry in 1888, when John Dunlop, a British surgeon, developed pneumatic tires for bicycles. Not long after that, rubber found an important new market in automobile tires. By the early 20th century, a useful kind of synthetic rubber was being produced to supplement natural rubber supplies for a growing list of purposes, although vehicles depended on tires made of natural rubber until World War II.
Before World War I, most rubber used in the United States was imported from South America. From then until World War II, most rubber came from Southeast Asia. When the supply was cut off by war, the industry entered a crash program and quickly developed new and better kinds of synthetic rubber. Since that time, both natural and synthetic rubber have continued to be important commodities. Today, both are found in countless products, from shoes to conveyor belts, baby bottles to mammoth storage containers, rubber balls to gaskets on spacecraft. Well over half of the rubber used in the United States is made into tires for automobiles, trucks, and other vehicles.
The Job of Rubber Goods Production Workers
Rubber goods are formed from natural or synthetic materials. Different products go through different processes, but generally all rubber is heated, shaped, and finished. Most of this work is done by machine.
The first step in rubber goods production is breaking up and mixing the crude rubber. Rubber cutters operate machines to cut bales of crude rubber into pieces. Rubber- mill tenders tend milling machines that mix, blend, knead, or refine scrap, crude, or synthetic rubber. The machines have corrugated rolls that break the rubber apart and soften it. Rubber is then mixed with chemicals to give it various desirable properties. Formula weighers operate tram cars on monorails beneath storage bins to collect and weigh ingredients. Rubber is mixed with ingredients such as zinc oxide, sulfur, stearic acid, or fillers in mixing machines such as banbury mixers. Chemists and others decide which chemicals to use, and they test samples of the mix before further processing. Foam rubber mixers, frothing-machine operators, and cement mixers tend special machines that mix air and chemicals into rubber to produce foam rubber and rubber cement.
Mixed and heated rubber is then shaped in one of several ways. It may be squeezed into sheets, molded in shapes, or extruded into tubing or other forms. Calender operators run machines that form rubber sheets of specified thickness. Sponge-press operators run machines that form and cure sponge rubber into sheeting for gaskets, insulation, and carpet padding. Dusting-and-brushing-machine operators may dust the sheets with talc to keep them from sticking together before further processing. Other workers shape rubber into products using various processes, including building up thin layers (plies) of rubber sheeting. Among these workers and products are self-sealing-fuel-tank builders, who make airplane fuel tanks; belt builders, sectional-belt-mold assemblers, v-belt builders, and belt-builder helpers, who make rubber belts; and expansion- joint builders, who make expansion joints for ends of rubber hoses.
Some rubber is formed by molding. Pourers fill curing molds with latex using a hose or a machine lever on a conveyor-belt machine. Some rubber products are formed by injection. Injection-molding-machine tenders inject hot rubber into molds to form molded products. Products such as balloons and rubber gloves are formed by dippers, who dip forms into liquid compounded latex rubber to coat them. Most other molded rubber products, including tires, are pressed and heated in molds. Foam-rubber molders make foam cushions and mattresses this way. Press tenders make hard objects such as golf and bowling balls. Arch-cushion press operators heat-press sponge rubber into arch cushions for rubber shoes and boots. Other molding is done by spraying. Foam dispensers spray liquid foam rubber into shaped plastic sheets to make padded dashboards and door panels for vehicles. Skin formers shape the plastic sheeting for these products. Mold strippers remove molded items from molds and prepare molds for further use. Mold cleaners clean, store, and distribute these molds.
The final method of forming rubber is extrusion. In this method, rubber is forced through dies to form continuous shaped rubber products such as tubes and strips. Extruder operators and extruder helpers set up and run extrusion machines. They select the proper die and install it on the machine, feed rubber stock into the machine, and set the speed at which the rubber is to be forced through the die. Extruder tenders regulate and run machines that extrude rubber into strands for elastic yarn. In shoe and boot making, wink-cutter operators extrude and cut rubber strips for rubber soles.
Rugs and other fabric goods are often given a rubber backing using calenders, which are machines that press materials between rollers to give a particular finish. Among the workers who operate these machines are four-roll calender operators, who use calenders to coat fabric with rubber to a specified thickness. Calender-let-off operators use machines to cure and dry fabrics after they are coated. Calender-wind-up tenders accumulate the coated fabric into rolls of specified size. Fabric normalizers shrink rubberized fabric to increase its strength.
Rubber is cured after it assumes its final shape. In curing, rubber is subjected to heat and pressure to increase its hardness, durability, stability, and elasticity. One such curing process is vulcanization. Foam-rubber sheeting is cured by foam-rubber curers, who roll a latex mixture into curing ovens. Belt-press operators and v-belt curers cure rubber transmission and conveyor belting. Weather-strip machine operators mold and vulcanize sponge-rubber beading to make weather-stripping for automobiles.
Rubber sheets, strips, and tubing must be cut into lengths and shapes to form products of specified types and sizes. Rubber-goods cutter-finishers use machines to cut, drill, and grind rubber goods, and they verify the sizes of goods using rulers, calipers, gauges, and templates. Extruder cutters cut extruded rubber into lengths. Automatic-die-cutting-machine operators stamp out rubber shapes using machines with sharp dies. Roll cutters use a lathe to cut rolls of rubber or rubberized fabric. Rubber-cutting-machine tenders use a guillotine-type machine to cut rubber slabs. Molded-rubber-goods cutters use cutting dies to trim molded articles.
Other workers cut rubber for specific products or purposes. These workers include strap-cutting-machine operators, who cut leg straps for hip boots; band machine operators, who cut rubber bands from special tubing; and hose cutters, who cut rubber hose into specified lengths. Mat punchers punch automobile floor mats from sheeting. Splitting-machine operators cut scrap tires or rubber sheets into pieces for reclamation.
Rubber items made of a single piece of rubber often need to go through a finishing process. Buffers may buff items to smooth and polish them; dippers may coat them with vinyl. Workers called openers pull weather-stripping through a machine to force apart sides stuck together during curing. Machine skivers bevel edges of shoe parts to prepare them for cementing or stitching. Padded-products finishers repair defects in padded automobile parts by injecting wrinkles and gaps with liquid rubber foam. Other workers do many other specialized finishing tasks, such as splicing tubing, rolling rings on the mouths of balloons, pressing seams on shoes together to make them watertight, and crimping the edges of articles to reinforce them.
The final processing of rubber items may involve assembling several pieces, decorating surfaces, and quality inspections. Workers who assemble items position and cement or stitch pieces together to make such goods as footwear, shock absorbers for airplane gas tanks, pneumatic airplane deicers, inflatable animals and figures for parades, and many other types of rubber goods. Among the specialized workers who decorate rubber goods are those who print designs or lettering on balloons, brand names on rubber hoses, and designs on rubber sheeting that will be made into footwear. Once goods are finished, rubber goods inspectors make sure company standards are met and repair defects they find.
Rubber Goods Production Worker Career Requirements
Because most rubber goods production workers learn their skills on the job, a high school diploma is often the only necessary qualification.
You may need a college degree if you plan to pursue chemistry, engineering, or research jobs in the rubber goods industry.
Production workers need to be in good health and they must have some aptitude for working with machines and other tools. Inspectors must have good eyesight and be able to make quick decisions.
Exploring Rubber Goods Production Worker Career
During college or technical school training, you may be able to obtain a summer job in a rubber goods plant. The experience can help you decide whether you like the work, and it also may be an advantage if you want full-time employment in the field when you graduate. Another useful experience would be to visit a local rubber goods plant. Some companies allow group tours of their facilities to educate the public about their operations.
Many of the rubber goods plants in the United States are located in Ohio and Indiana, although new plants are springing up in the South. There are rubber plants around the world, especially in Europe, North America, and Japan.
The best way to look for work in this industry is to apply directly to rubber goods plants that may be hiring new employees. Jobs may also be located through the local offices of the state employment service, newspaper classified ads, or offices of the unions that organize workers in local plants.
Most beginning workers enter the industry with few, if any, specialized skills, and learn what they need to know on the job. After they have gained experience and shown that they are reliable employees, they may be promoted to positions in which they are responsible for supervising other workers or for performing tasks that require higher skill levels. Taking courses in technical schools or colleges can speed advancement for many workers.
The earnings of workers in rubber goods production vary widely according to the workers’ skills, seniority, the hours they work, and other factors. Many workers are members of unions, and their pay is determined by agreements between the union and company management. In general, earnings compare favorably to those of workers in other production jobs in industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, tire production workers had median annual earnings of $36,810 in 2004. Earnings of production workers in the rubber and plastics industries averaged between $24,190 for those who operated and tended molding, core-making, and casting machines and $44,260 for model makers. In general, salaries for production workers can range from $17,750 to $46,000, depending on experience, hours worked, and whether or not the job involves supervisory duties. Workers on night shifts are usually paid more than those who work day shifts.
In addition to their regular earnings, rubber goods workers generally receive benefits such as paid vacation days and holidays, sick leave, and employer contributions to pension plans, and life and health insurance.
Most employees in rubber goods production plants work 40 to 46 hours per week. Conditions on the job are generally quite safe. Plants are equipped with special ventilation systems to remove heat, fumes, and dust, and safety features on machinery protect workers from most injuries. Most plants are well lighted and have comfortable heating and cooling systems.
Like most production work, rubber goods jobs often involve repetitive tasks. Working with hot presses, sharp tools, and heavy machinery requires steady nerves and mechanical aptitude.
Rubber Goods Production Worker Career Outlook
In coming years, growth of employment in rubber goods production jobs will probably be limited by increasing automation in manufacturing processes and technological advances that make some rubber goods better and longer-lasting.
In North America synthetic rubber consumption is expected to rise at an average annual rate of 1.7 percent, according to statistics released by the International Institute of Synthetic Rubber Producers. Natural rubber consumption should remain flat.
Because an important part of the rubber industry is devoted to tires for vehicles, rubber goods production will always be related to the state of the automobile industry. When fewer cars are being manufactured and sold, there is less need for workers who make tires. The Rubber Manufacturers Association predicted a 2.8% increase in tread rubber shipments for 2006.
As new uses for synthetic rubber are developed, probably a smaller portion of the rubber industry will depend on making rubber tires. Instead, new products such as rubber-like paints, waterproofings, and noise-control pads for use in building construction may make up a larger part of the industry’s production.
Normal employee turnover in this industry will mean that every year, many new openings will become available as experienced workers move into new jobs or leave the workforce altogether.