By: Donagh Fitzgerald B.Prod Eng and Claire Wilson BSc. Last Updated: April 2024

production operator

What is a Production Operator?

Production Operators work in a (non-chemical and non-biochemical) manufacturing environment to transform individual parts, sub-assemblies and materials into distinct products that can be counted and itemized (e.g. cars, phones, TVs, computers, cans and machine tools). This work is typically on a production or assembly line. 

Their workplace resembles a typical factory, with machine tools, assembly lines, robots, and conveyor belts.

Production Operators are often stationed at specific points along the production line, where they feed materials or parts into a machine, oversee the operation of machinery, execute tasks, handle equipment setup, perform maintenance and adjustments, monitor product standards and enforce safety protocols.

Some companies call this role:

  • Production Operative
  • Production Team Member
  • Manufacturing Operator
  • Manufacturing Operative
  • Manufacturing Team Member
  • Product Assembler

According to the BLS 2022 report on production operators, the median average wage is $18.43 per hour and the median average salary is $42,000 per year.

Entry-level salaries range from €35,000 – €45,000 plus overtime, bonuses and allowances (based on Morgan McKinley Irish Salary Calculator).

BTW, if you are interested in becoming a Production Operator in the Pharmaceutical or Medical Device manufacturing industries check out our Conversion Course into Pharmaceutical Manufacturing

Why is the role called a “Production Operator”?

The “production” in Production Operator comes from Production Engineering and refers to the branch of professional engineering used in the types of factories that production operators work in. We also call this Manufacturing Engineering.

Industries and Work Environment

Production Operators work across a range of manufacturing and production environments. For example:

  • Automotive Industry: Working with automated machinery to assemble vehicles and their components, focusing on precision and quality control.
  • Consumer Electronics: Assembling electronic devices and components, often in cleanroom environments, where precision and adherence to specifications are critical.
  • Plastic Parts Production: Operating machinery for the extrusion, moulding or fabrication of plastic products.
  • Metal Fabrication: Working with heavy machinery for cutting, shaping and assembling metal products, often requiring physical strength and technical skill.
  • Battery, Solar Panel and Cell Phone Manufacturing: Operating highly automated machinery, and assembling products on an assembly line.
  • Machine Tool Manufacturing: Operating machinery and assisting toolmakers, fitters/turners and manufacturing technicians.
  • Medical Device Manufacturing: Working with automated machinery to manufacture and assemble individual components and products.
  • Pharmaceuticals: Working in the later stages (fill finish/packaging) of pharmaceutical manufacturing.
  • Food and Beverage Manufacturing: Working in sorting, fill finishing, packing and labelling the product. 

Key Responsibilities

  1. Machine Operation: Starting and monitoring machinery to ensure it runs smoothly. Adjusting settings or inputs as needed to meet production specifications and output requirements.
  2. Quality Control: Inspecting products to ensure they meet quality standards. This includes checking for defects, ensuring accuracy in dimensions and adhering to safety standards. Any issues are documented and addressed promptly to minimize waste and rework.
  3. Routine Maintenance and Troubleshooting: Performing basic maintenance tasks to keep machinery operating efficiently. This could involve cleaning, lubricating parts and making minor repairs. Operators also troubleshoot and resolve minor issues that arise during the shift.
  4. Safety Compliance: Following all safety protocols to maintain a safe working environment. This includes wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), adhering to safety guidelines around machinery and participating in safety drills or training sessions.
  5. Record-Keeping: Maintaining accurate records of production data, such as output levels, machine downtimes, maintenance activities and quality inspections.
  6. Material Handling: Ensuring materials are properly loaded into machinery, monitoring supply levels and managing the storage of both raw materials and finished products.
  7. Collaboration and Communication: Working closely with other production team members, including supervisors, maintenance staff, and quality control personnel.
  8. Process Improvement: Identifying, suggesting and (in some cases) implementing improvements to increase efficiency, reduce waste or enhance product quality. Production Operators are on the front lines of the manufacturing process and with training, are in an excellent position to do this.

What Machinery or Equipment are Production Operators Typically Responsible For?

This can vary widely across different industries and manufacturing processes.

  1. Production Lines: Equipment and machinery that automate the manufacture of parts into finished products. Operators may oversee the operation of the entire line or specific stations, adjusting speeds, loading components and ensuring seamless transitions between stages.
  2. Assembly Lines: Working at a specific station an assembly line, performing repetitive tasks to construct parts of a product as it moves along a conveyor belt. This requires coordination and speed to keep up with the line’s pace.
  3. CNC Machines: Operating and monitoring Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines used in metalworking where precise cutting, drilling or milling is required.
  4. Injection Molding Machines: In plastics manufacturing, these machines are used to inject molten plastic into moulds to create parts or products. Operators are responsible for the basic set-up of the machine, monitoring the production process and removing finished products.
  5. Packaging Machines: These machines package finished products into containers, boxes or wrapping. Operators set up the machines, ensure materials are fed correctly and adjust settings for different packaging types.
  6. Presses: Used in various industries for shaping or cutting materials. This includes hydraulic presses, punch presses and stamping presses. Operators set up dies, adjust pressure settings and operate the press to produce parts.
  7. Extrusion Machines: Used in plastic, metal and food industries to create objects of a fixed cross-sectional profile. Operators set up the machine, feed raw materials and adjust conditions like temperature and speed to shape the product.
  8. Furnaces and Kilns: Used in metalworking and ceramics, these high-temperature ovens change the properties of materials. Operators control temperature settings and monitor processes for smelting, annealing or baking.

Watch this Video of a Production Operator’s Role!

For a look at the role of a Production Operator (described by someone actually on the job), check out this video from Nolato Contour.

Qualifications and Experience

A successful Production Operator typically has a combination of the following:

Qualifications

  1. Educational Background: A high school diploma, secondary school certificate or equivalent is often the minimum educational requirement. For more technical or specialized operations, employers may prefer candidates with a certificate or associate degree in a related field.
  2. Technical Skills and Training: Hands-on training in machinery operation, maintenance, or a specific manufacturing process is highly valued. This can be obtained through vocational training programs, technical schools or community colleges. Some positions may require specific certifications related to equipment operation or safety.
  3. Safety Certifications: Knowledge of workplace safety and health regulations (such as OSHA standards in the United States) can be important. Certifications in first aid, CPR or specific safety protocols relevant to the industry (e.g., handling hazardous materials) may be required or preferred.
  4. Computer Skills: Basic computer skills are necessary for operating computer-controlled machinery, entering data and understanding production software. More advanced roles may require knowledge of specific software or basic programming skills for CNC machines.

Experience

For entry-level positions, employers may prioritize candidates with the right educational background and provide on-the-job training for specific machinery or processes. For more advanced or specialized operator roles, prior experience with specific types of equipment and a deeper technical knowledge base may be required. Continuous learning and skill development are also important in this role, as technology and manufacturing processes evolve.

  • Manufacturing Experience: Prior experience working in a manufacturing, production or related industrial environment can be crucial. This includes familiarity with production workflows, machinery operation, lean manufacturing, quality assurance and quality control processes.
  • Machine Operation: Experience with the specific types of machinery or equipment used in the employer’s production process is highly advantageous. This includes understanding machine setup, operation, troubleshooting and maintenance.
  • Quality Control and Inspection: Experience in monitoring the quality of products, understanding industry standards and using measurement tools or inspection equipment.
  • Teamwork and Communication: Experience working as part of a team in a manufacturing environment. Effective communication skills help in coordinating with other operators, technicians, supervisors and management.
  • Adaptability and Problem-Solving: Demonstrated ability to adapt to new processes, learn new machinery and solve problems that arise during production.

Physical Requirements

Production Operator roles often come with a set of physical demands and work conditions that applicants should be aware of. These vary based on the specific industry and manufacturing environment but typically include:

  1. Standing for Long Periods: Many production jobs require operators to be on their feet for most of their shift, operating machinery or overseeing production processes.
  2. Lifting and Handling Materials: Operators may need to manually lift raw materials, components or finished products. This could involve handling objects weighing from a few kilograms to over 25 kilograms depending on the job.
  3. Repetitive Motions: Tasks such as assembling parts, packaging products or operating certain types of machinery may require repetitive movements, which can strain muscles and joints over time.
  4. Noise Levels: Manufacturing environments can be noisy, especially in facilities with heavy machinery. Hearing protection is often required and applicants should be comfortable working in a loud environment.
  5. Exposure to Substances: Depending on the type of manufacturing, operators may be exposed to chemicals, dust, fumes or other hazardous materials. Proper safety protocols and personal protective equipment (PPE) are essential to minimize risks.
  6. Shift Work: Production operations can run around the clock, requiring operators to work in shifts. This may include night shifts, weekends and overtime to meet production targets.
  7. Extreme Temperatures: Some manufacturing processes involve working in areas that are hotter or colder than typical office environments, such as near furnaces or in refrigerated storage areas.
  8. Safety Risks: Working with heavy machinery and tools poses inherent safety risks. Operators must be vigilant, follow safety guidelines and use PPE to protect against injuries.
  9. Visual and Mental Acuity: Precision in monitoring production processes and quality control requires good vision and attention to detail. Mental focus is crucial for observing safety practices and operating machinery properly.
  10. Manual Dexterity: Some production roles require fine motor skills to assemble small parts, make adjustments to machinery or perform detailed quality checks.

Production Operator vs Production Technician

The difference between these two used to be very clear-cut but over the years the boundaries have gotten rather blurry.

After reading hundreds of job descriptions, here is our take on the current differences (but do keep in mind that we are generalising and there are always exceptions)…

Operator Role

An operator’s role tends to place heavy emphasis on strictly following processes, procedures and systems. Knowledge of how the process works isn’t generally a minimum entry requirement for an operator role.

The job role has usually been designed, simplified and standardised by industrial, manufacturing or process engineers, often with input from Quality Assurance. This can allow inexperienced people to be hired and quickly trained on the job.

Here are some typical responsibilities:

  • Follow manufacturing procedures and production systems
  • Assembly and testing of products
  • Operating production equipment
  • Conducting process inspections and record results
  • Writing/providing input for operating procedures
  • Input data to a computer
  • Materials/warehouse support
  • Dispatch of orders

Technician Role

The job title “technician” implies the person has technical, practical and tacit knowledge of the subject that has taken time and effort to acquire. This knowledge goes way beyond the surface level.

They typically have technical acumen and understand how manufacturing processes work as well as how they fit together with other processes. Technicians often have some degree of autonomy at work and will have to exercise good judgment while doing their job.

Here are some typical responsibilities:

  • Setup, startup or operate and shut down complex plant machinery and/or use software to run computer-operated processes on the factory floor
  • Operate the control room for large industrial plants or refineries and monitor the output of the process. Diagnose and fix routine problems
  • Monitor the performance of plant equipment and process conditions, quickly diagnose and troubleshoot routine or minor problems
  • Perform inspection, cleaning, and maintenance of the equipment in accordance with SOPs
  • Read and monitor flow meters and temperature and pressure gauges, etc and take routine readings on process variables and material properties within the process such as density, viscosity, particle-size distribution, flow rates, pressures, pH levels, cell count (in biomanufacturing) and temperatures, and make adjustments when required
  • In some cases, the role may require a high degree of manual dexterity as the job might require switching out pipes or machinery when changing from one product run to another within the facility

Educational requirements

Having read hundreds of technician and operator job descriptions, here is our take on the difference in typical educational job requirements between the two roles…

Operator job educational requirements

  • Minimum of a High School Diploma, A Levels or Leaving Cert qualification and/or a minimum of 2-3 years industry experience.
  • Generally needs knowledge of GMPs to work in pharma or med device manufacturing.

Technician job educational requirements

  • Requires an Irish NFQ level 6 or level 7* university-accredited qualification in a relevant engineering, technical or laboratory science field. Usually a certificate or diploma but in some cases, this could be an ordinary level 7 degree (especially for laboratory technician roles).
  • Or 2 to 3 years of relevant technical work experience in lieu of a qualification
  • Knowledge of relevant regulations

equivalent to level 4, 5 or 6 under the England/ Wales/ Northern Ireland FHEQ

Working as a Production Operator

Production Operators spend little to no time at a desk and are almost always on their feet on the factory floor. Even when they are operating or monitoring a machine, they are still standing and alert. They spend most of the day they on their feet moving from workstation to workstation. In addition, the factory floor is often loud and some factories may require them to wear ear protection.

In the medical device manufacturing industry, they usually work within a cleanroom environment so personal protective gear (including masks, clothing, footwear and gloves) is required. This is both for their own safety and to maintain the integrity of the product by avoiding contamination.

In the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry, Production Operators work in the fill-finish or packaging. This is the final stage of the manufacturing process where the active agent is prepared into its final form, before being filled and sealed within containers.

Production Operator’s Salary and Benefits

Salary Range

According to the BLS 2022 report on production operators, the median average wage is $18.43 per hour and the median average salary is $42,000 per year.

Entry-level salaries range from €35,000 – €45,000 plus overtime, bonuses and allowances (based on Morgan McKinley Irish Salary Calculator).

In the UK, the basic entry-level salary for a Production Operator is £25,870
Reference: Office for National Statistics

Benefits Package

A comprehensive benefits package is an important part of the total compensation for Production Operators. While specifics can vary, common elements include:

  • Health Insurance: In the USA, coverage typically includes medical, dental and vision insurance. Employers may cover a significant portion of the premiums.
  • Retirement Plans: Many companies offer retirement plans (such as a 401(k) in the USA) with some offering company matching contributions up to a certain percentage.
  • Life and Disability Insurance: Basic life insurance and short-term or long-term disability coverage are often part of the benefits package.
  • Bonuses and Incentives: Performance-based bonuses, profit-sharing plans or other financial incentives may be offered to reward individual or company-wide achievements.
  • Professional Development: Opportunities for professional development including training courses, certification programs and tuition reimbursement for further education related to the operator’s role.

Overtime Compensation

  • Overtime Opportunities: Production Operators often have opportunities to work overtime, especially in industries that operate around the clock or have peak production periods.
  • Overtime Pay: This will depend on your location.
    • In the United States, compensation for overtime typically follows federal and state regulations, with employees receiving time and a half (1.5 times their regular hourly rate) for hours worked beyond the standard 40-hour work week. Some companies may offer higher overtime rates for working on holidays or in particularly demanding situations.
    • In Ireland, “There is no legal right to pay for working extra hours and there are no statutory levels of overtime pay. However, most employers pay employees higher rates of pay for overtime.” There are some exceptions to rule. Check out Citizens Information

How Do You Become a Production Operator in Medical Device Manufacturing?

If you’d like to retrain for a Production Operator role within the medical device manufacturing or pharmaceutical manufacturing sector, check out the following steps:

Take this Conversion Course into Pharmaceutical Manufacturing to retrain for entry-level roles such as:

  • Production Operator
  • Production Operative
  • Manufacturing Operator
  • Manufacturing Team Member
  • Assembler

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About the Author

Our Team

Donagh Fitzgerald

Head of Marketing & Product Development
Mechanical/Production Engineer

Donagh looks after the marketing and product development including the training and pedagogical elements of our programs and makes sure that all GetReskilled’s users can have a great online learning experience. Donagh has lived and worked in many countries including Ireland, America, the UK, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. Donagh has also served as the Program Manager for the Farmleigh Fellowship based out of Singapore.

Donagh holds Degrees in Production Engineering and Mechanical Engineering from South East Technological University, Ireland.

Image with Claire Wilison from GetReskilled Team

Claire Wilson

Content Marketing and Career Coaching

Claire runs GetReskilled’s Advanced Career Coaching Programme – our specially devised job hunting course that helps our trainees take that final step into employment by leading them through the job hunting process. She is extremely enthusiastic about helping people reach their final goal of employment in their new career path.

Claire has a BSc (Hons) in Medical Biology from Edinburgh University and spent 7 years working in the pharmaceutical and medical device industries.