Born to teach

Patrick De Vos is Corporate Technical Education Manager at Seco Tools. He educates our customers about the machining process. In a way, Seco can thank Patrick’s father for setting him on the course that led him to where he happily finds himself today…

De Vos is a teacher, which has been his passion since university. “I like to teach. It’s fun,” he explains. “I get satisfaction when, after the course or seminar, people come up to me and they say, ‘now I understand!’ and I can see it in their eyes.”

Things could have been very different, however. De Vos originally wanted to be a historian or an archaeologist, but then his father intervened.

“My dad told me there was no future in these areas, and I replied, ‘Of course there’s no future, it’s about the past!’” Despite that witty reply, De Vos’s father’s advice had the desired effect and, 32 years ago, De Vos ended up accepting a job at Seco, where his teaching skills came to the fore. Now he educates customers worldwide about the machining process, explaining how it functions and how all the different elements of the process interact with each other, among other things. His training courses are called STEP (Seco’s Technical Education Program).

De Vos’s eyes light up when he talks about his relationship with customers. “They are so open to learn about things and to see things,” he says. “It’s great to hear how happy they are if they apply the teaching and, if after a while, they send me an email or the next time I see them they say, ‘It works!’” He adds, “They give you so much extra input – have you thought about this? And have you considered this? It’s so fun.”

“The main thing is that every workpiece is correct”

For De Vos, listening to those he teaches is crucial and he prides himself on having been told by a customer ‘I trust you’, especially as his teaching can help a business to ensure it uses its tools properly, avoiding destroyed workpieces that could cost the company a fortune. And that level of attentiveness has brought the STEP training to a whole new level. The course now has a ‘Next STEP’ class, explaining the practical link between metal cutting technology and practical production economics.

“A hundred years ago it was easy,” De Vos explains, “You had one machine and one operator and the operator knew exactly what he was doing. No one questioned him. If the job of the operator was to produce five workpieces, in the end you had five workpieces which were correct. This took time and cost some money but nobody questioned him because he was the specialist and he knew what he was doing. Then we went into the era of mass production – e.g. 50,000 workpieces – all at the same time. And if 200 of them were destroyed that was part of the game”.

He goes on, “Today, in most segments but especially in aerospace, medical and energy production, those involved don’t talk about 50,000 workpieces anymore; they have gone back to talking about 50. And if 50 jet engine casings need to be produced, it is unacceptable to destroy one – have you seen the price of those things?! – so each and every one must be perfect. To achieve that, we need to bring in human interaction because in a manufacturing process the human involvement is about controlling, checking and monitoring input and output.”

And according to De Vos, speed is not necessarily of the essence, either. “So manufacturers come out with a new grade – yes, you’ll get higher speeds, higher feeds, unmanned production,” he says, “…but what does that mean? In this new trend – not a lot, because the main thing is not to go fast. The main thing is to ensure that every workpiece is correct, and it’s quite acceptable to spend some more time, as long as you are sure that the result is going to be good. And it’s a different attitude.”

De Vos, for one, is convinced. “When I started to work for Seco and we brought a new carbide grade, cutting speeds were double, if not three times higher. Now that was something! Today – I don’t say it’s not important, of course we have to stay on top of it – but the changes are minor and these things don’t trigger our customers anymore.”

People have been talking about this trend towards getting every piece right for 15-20 years, but today those thoughts are finally developing into actions; De Vos feels that if anything, those in Asia are further along in this process than the Western world. “In the Western world people visit big automotive manufacturers to see how it is in ‘heaven’ – how they organise their production. It probably is heaven for people who want to produce 100,000 workpieces but this is not the case anymore in the majority of companies.”

After 32 years with Seco, Patrick de Vos is sometimes musing about his own next step. And it looks like his father didn’t manage to completely deter him, after all. The teacher plans to go back to being a student when he retires from Seco, with a plan to go to university to study history.

Although, even then, “I’ll probably end up at the front of the class with a pointer in my hand explaining some sort of process to the other students,” De Vos smiles, knowing that his passion for teaching will probably never quite leave him.

By Jennifer Gauffin

Patrick De Vos

Age: 57
Job: Corporate Technical Education Manager
Location: Antwerp province, Belgium
Family: In a relationship and 2 sons
Hobbies: Reading, discussing and debating, writing books (see the technical books published), history, archeology
Education: Masters Degree in Manufacturing Technology and Production Economics

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Patrick De Vos answers questions about machining in our Edge-Ucation section. Read his contributions here.

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