RAPID 2014: Laboring to Advance
By James D. Sawyer
It is hard to go to an exhibition like RAPID 2014 and not be excited by the advancements and innovation made possible by additive manufacturing. Couple that with THE BIG M, a co-located event aimed at “applying our best thinking to our most complex manufacturing challenges,” and you have a recipe for a high-energy gathering.
There was, however, one undercurrent of thought running through Detroit’s Cobo Center that was not announced as being part of the event: The skills gap and what to do about it.
From the opening keynote by US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker to the various panel discussions I attended, the need to interest, educate, train and recruit a new generation to manufacturing was part of the discussion. If you’re interested in Pritzker’s take on the topic you can find it here. What I found more interesting was how often panel discussions featuring top executives turned from their stated themes to address workforce issues.
Let’s start with the three-member panel on “Deglobalization: Retooling Global Operations for Strategic Advantage.” This discussion was part of the Detroit Economic Club’s regular monthly meeting, which was held at Cobo to coincide with The BIG M. It opened with some background on offshoring and reshoring as well as defining deglobalization.
For instance, noted Jim Moffatt, chairman and CEO of Deloitte Consulting LLP, offshoring was based on consideration of immediate costs such as wage rates. Deglobalization, he said, now takes into account the full menu of costs, including such things as the political stability of a nation, shipping rates and quality.
“The right decision of what to manufacture where,” Moffatt said, “is probably different for each company. They have to take into account what is best for their own global markets.”
David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, enumerated some of the things that companies have to take into account.
“The availability of talent, tooling, equipment and suppliers,” he said, “are just some of the choke points for global manufacturers today. The talent issue is a serious problem and will become more serious in the US as baby boomers exit the workforce.” Later in the discussion he noted that “if you don’t have the right skills in your labor force, you’re toast.”
David Szczupak, executive vice president, Global Product Organization, Whirlpool Corp., believes that some existing programs hold great promise for attracting and training young people in the skills needed for manufacturing careers. He is particularly pleased with First Robotics. “It’s a great way for kids to learn about making things and being creative and it also appeals to their sense of competitiveness.”
In addition, Szczupak praised First Robotics for its encouragement of innovation. He believes that innovation is a key element of deglobalization and remaining competitive in a world where leading-edge ideas, technologies and products don’t remain leading-edge for long. “Deglobalization is about global optimization. It’s not about forgetting about the rest of the world. It’s about the total value chain and the ability to meet market changes.”
If products don’t change, he said, they become commodities and quickly lose value. “That is why you need to continue to innovate.”
Later in the day a six-member panel discussed “New Strategies for Advanced Manufacturing: Preparing the Future." While the topic wasn’t strictly keyed to the auto industry, the manufacture of motorized vehicles came up frequently—not surprising given the makeup of the panel and the Motor City locale.
Jay Baron, CEO of the Center for Automotive Research, noted that the “auto industry is going through a transformation and acceleration of technology in terms of materials and component design” that is virtually unprecedented. Staying current with these changes is paramount, he said.
Mark Stevens, Diversified Tooling Group vice president, agreed. He believes, however, that there is something even more important. “You need to stay current with materials, processes, equipment and technologies,” Stevens said, “but the important thing is to stay current with people who have the current skills” manufacturing needs now and will require in the future.
That’s also a direction in which Martin Kinsella, director of Advanced Materials & Manufacturing Research at Comau, is looking. “Manufacturing needs to put a better effort into recruiting and engaging young engineers and even children,” he said, “in order to change their mindset about manufacturing.”
Stevens and Frank Seguin, Magna Closures and Mirrors president, both said that their companies are addressing the skills gap at least in part through apprenticeship programs.
Among other issues mentioned as needing to be dealt with in order for manufacturing to continue to advance were infrastructure needs, connectivity and R&D.
“In Michigan alone,” Baron said, “there are more than 370 R&D centers supporting the auto industry. Very few of them are in electronics.” Currently, he noted, the industry has to go outside for electronics R&D and that this is due in no small part to the difficulty the auto industry has in recruiting against electronics entities that are located in what are considered to be more desirable parts of the country.
“At GE,” said Stephan Biller GE’s chief scientist of manufacturing and research, “we are bringing some R&D back inside to shorten the supply chain and to maintain our edge in R&D.” If a company loses its ability to conduct research and development it may lose its ability to understand the innovations that end up in its products and may indeed lose the ability to innovate.
“Infrastructure is my greatest concern,” said Jim deVries, Ford Motor Co.’s global manager of materials and manufacturing research. “The infrastructure to supply components at high volume for the auto industry needs to be there to support innovations.” The high cost of capital investment in infrastructure and the ability to adapt infrastructure quickly to changing market trends are issues with which the industry needs to deal.
Infrastructure is also a concern for GE. “Reusing infrastructure is very critical for us,” Biller said, “not just because of the high capital investment but also because of the long life cycles” for products such as locomotives, electrical generators and jet engines.
However, he said, “We think the critical point for the next five to 10 years is to pull the digital thread into manufacturing to tie things together.”
Magna’s Seguin agreed. “We’ve stayed competitive through innovation, production and quality, but our factories, robots and people need to be connected to remain competitive.”
Published Date : 6/11/2014