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Cutting Edge: How an Inquiring Mind Found His Niche at Koch-Glitsch

March 3, 2021

min read

Pedro Osornio is a natural-born tinkerer. As a young boy, he once dismantled a radio, poked through the cables and circuitry, then put it back together. A few years later, he and his brother built a natural gas-fired stove for his family’s restaurant.

“We figured out how the gas flowed and everything,” Pedro says. “I’ve always liked knowing how things work and finding a better way to do things.”

Almost three decades have since passed, but Pedro’s raw engineering potential and thirst for knowledge are paying off. He recently started a new job programming hi-tech laser-cutting machines at Koch-Glitsch, the Koch company that builds internal components for large distillation towers used by oil refiners and petrochemical producers to distill and separate oil-derived products.

And just feet from where he sits today are the stairs and elevators he once swept as a member of the contracted cleaning crew. 

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While Pedro’s career path may be unique, it wasn’t luck that propelled him from the housekeeping night shift to a highly skilled role in a rapidly evolving industry. That transformation took curiosity, energy and the initiative to seek out new opportunities and proactively learn about new technology. 

His long journey began in Mexico, where Pedro’s father wanted him to be a shepherd. “I was a farm boy, and my dad wanted me to raise sheep,” he said. But young Pedro, who was fascinated by cars and appliances, didn’t see himself managing livestock or growing crops. Instead he took apart the machine his mother used to shell corn and rebuilt it again. Deep inside, he knew he was born to do something different. “I remember I felt like I didn’t belong there … it was like a calling.”

Years later Pedro found himself in Wichita, Kansas, and secured a job sweeping the steps and elevators of Koch's headquarters. The hours he spent were long and late — usually between 6 p.m. and 2 a.m. — but Pedro didn’t complain. In the back of his mind, he was constantly thinking of ways to do his job better, as well as what he needed to learn to ultimately secure a different job. And working the night shift allowed him to take his first step toward a new dream.

“The beginning was hard,” he said. “It was a culture shock for maybe five months, then I started getting things done by myself, communicating, getting my own job, driving around by myself, and that sense of achievement.”

Frustrated with his inability to communicate, he enrolled in English classes. His shift allowed for just a few hours of sleep every morning, but it was a worthwhile sacrifice.

The constant pursuit of knowledge is consistent with Pedro’s curious nature. It’s what drives him to learn new skills – whether it’s learning English or a programming language.

Pedro has his own philosophy about personal growth: “If you learn something new today, you are not the same person that you were yesterday."   

Fifteen years passed and Pedro planted roots in Wichita. He fell in love and had a daughter. And he had moved on from housekeeping when he discovered a talent for a particular skill: laser cutting, or the use of a high-energy beam to precisely cut thick materials, such as steel plates.

Then, he got some good news from a friend at Koch-Glitsch – there was an opening at the company for a machine operator. He knew from his previous experience it was where he wanted to be and what he wanted to do. “I went to Koch's website, found the posting and applied.”

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Pedro got the job. He remembers his first few weeks were a bit overwhelming, navigating a new environment and learning the ropes. Laser cutting is a serious business at Koch-Glitsch, where demanding precision is necessary to create the mass transfer and separations equipment customers rely on across the refining, chemical, petrochemical and gas processing industries.

“There’s a good chance the gas in your car touched a piece of our equipment,” explains Jake Johnson, the engineering fabrication manager at Koch-Glitsch and Pedro’s supervisor.

Like Pedro, the metal-cutting industry was in the midst of transformation when he started the job, transitioning from older carbon dioxide lasers to high-tech fiber-optic technology. “I was working on 20-year-old machines while also being trained on the new technology,” he says. “It was a great introduction to both cutting and programming.”

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At first, he was apprehensive about the new role. “There was plenty of fear, because I didn’t want to make a mistake,” he says. While managing his nerves, he also needed to be a sponge, because he was being bombarded with information. “Paperwork, code, materials, stencils — I had to learn everything.”

But his curious nature proved to be his best asset. It wasn’t long before he figured out how to operate his machine effectively. Pedro shadowed his co-workers and supervisors as they worked on the line, capturing nuggets of knowledge on sticky notes. These pointers accumulated around his workspace, and he now passes them along to other operators. He also taught himself G-code, the numerical language used to tell computerized machine tools how to make something.

All of this helped him gain a deeper insight into the forces shaping the modern workplace – the powerful software, automated processes and brilliant machines. Then, it dawned on him: With new technology constantly creating new opportunities, his machine operator role might not be around forever.

“I needed to reinvent myself and find another trade.”

Pedro’s chance to transform his role came when the programming department needed a capable machine programmer for its new laser-cutting machines. The job seemed to have his name on it, but Pedro did not want to be complacent. “I went home and put a resume together,” he remembers. He aced the interview and got the job. 

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Pedro is now a year into this new role, which involves work with 3D designs of engineered-to-order tower internals, as well as advanced programming in G-code. One of his main jobs is the nesting of metal parts — the process of laying out cutting patterns to minimize material waste — and then programming machines to cut, punch or form the steel according to his nesting design.

Jake explains Pedro first learned how to program the laser-cutting machine using the machine he operated on the production floor. “We like to start people out on the machines they were working on,” he says. “Pedro ran that laser for years — now he’s learning how to program it.” 

For Pedro, it’s taken work and self-discovery to gain confidence programming the equipment. “At first, I was out of my comfort zone,” he says. In some ways, he still saw himself as an operator. He had never imagined working as a programmer. 

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Fortunately, his colleagues have become his support system — and his friends. Pedro reels off names: “Brian, Jerry, Tom, Yusuf — they have all been there for me.” And they don’t just have his back, they also trust him. This became clear when leadership asked him to teach his fellow operators how to use the laser-cutting machine safely and productively. The student had become the teacher. And the new role has given him an immense sense of pride and fulfillment.

“I like my job,” he says. “I like the challenge. It’s the first time I’ve loved Mondays.”