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CEOs: Embrace ‘Remote Experts,’ Sensors, Continuous Training, to Address Skills Gap

Brett Brune
By Brett Brune Editor in Chief, Smart Manufacturing

Employee retention, school partnerships, automation & robotics also top of mind

Tackling the workforce skills gap issue involves dealing with not only experienced employees who have sharp subtractive manufacturing skills but have to be prodded to move into additive manufacturing (AM) but also newbies who still need to hone skills required to harness the promise of emerging technology, Atlas Stamping and Manufacturing CEO Lynda Prigodich-Reed said. She was one of five CEOs invited to take part in Collective Intelligence, an exclusive roundtable Smart Manufacturing held recently in Boston with the assistance of Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

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Atlas Stamping and Manufacturing CEO Lynda Prigodich-Reed. (Photos by David Butler II)

The experienced workers who haven’t embraced AM “don’t feel like there’s a lot of pressure because there aren’t people waiting in the wings with the skills needed to rush in and do it,” she said, adding that some of them fear looking stupid while they get up to speed on new technology. “Then you have the younger people who are willing to just jump in—but they don’t know what they’re doing at all.”

In some parts of the country, hiring a new skilled manufacturing worker can take up to a year. Meantime, the workforce is aging. More than 35% of the employers Tooling U-SME surveyed this year indicated that at least 20% of their employees will become eligible for retirement over the next three years, the training and workforce development organization said.

To bridge the skills gap, companies are introducing emerging technology in ways intended to make employees more comfortable with using it.

At her contract manufacturing operation in Newington, CT, Prigodich-Reed is considering taking a cue from the University of Connecticut, which spreads 3D printers around its campus and encourages students to play. “Normally, they design a cellphone case,” which gives them a chance to get familiar with AM design software, at least. “I think we have to do more interesting things like that to make people comfortable.”

IC3D Printers CEO Michael Cao works to get employees well trained on disruptive technology by investing in lower-cost, smaller equipment employees can easily learn on—and by fostering “a very open, helping culture within our business,” he said. His Columbus, OH-based firm is an on-demand manufacturing applications workshop mixing traditional manufacturing process with digital 3D printing technologies—mostly for the automotive industry.

That experimental mindset also can work for employees. At least with regard to additive, IMMY Inc. has learned to “bite the bullet” and invest in experimentation-only periods for some workers—in which “we know they’re not going to produce anything worth a damn for a while,” CEO Doug Magyari said.

The Troy, MI-based firm has to some extent temporarily eschewed concerns about profitability, he added. At the same time, “If we have something that has to go out, we don’t turn to those people” engaging in R&D. “And we let them know it’s okay to fail, or not produce something, for a while.”

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IMMY CEO Doug Magyari

IMMY puts longer lead times on products and changes pricing structures that are not “right down the center lane” to compensate, Magyari said.

Manufacturers are increasingly collaborating with community colleges and high schools both to get their message out—that manufacturing jobs are a savvy career choice—and to make known what skills future workers need.

East Iowa Machine Co (EIMCo) in Farley, IA, works with a local community college and nearby high schools to imbue the newbies with smart manufacturing skills, CEO Rick Hoffman said. The schools are listening to local manufacturers as they choose what to teach and how to train.

People in their 30s who are looking for jobs do not want to go to a two-year trade school, he said. So Northeast Iowa Community College came out with a six-month work skills certification program.

Prigodich-Reed is working with the Aerospace Components Manufacturing, a collection of about 120 Connecticut firms, to “influence the local community colleges and the four-year colleges to put in classes, and to put in the things that we actually need the students to come out with,” she said. “I’m not saying we’ve hit a homerun yet,” with one school having added a six-week course on SPC (statistical process control) since she joined a couple of years ago.

The group is pushing for assistance in high schools and even middle schools to combat the “stigma of working in manufacturing,” which she noted is still thought of as dark, dirty and dangerous.

In high schools near its plant, EIMCo each year devises a project for about 100 students—and gives them some funds to build a Tee shirt launcher or a trike, for example.

“We give them the understanding of what we do at EIMCo, all the stuff we make. We give them an idea of what training they would need for an engineer, what training you need for a CNC operator, and then we’ll take them through our shop,” Hoffman said.

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East Iowa Machine Co (EIMCo) CEO Rick Hoffman

EIMCo, where about 150 people work three shifts, converting raw metals into finished component parts and assemblies, currently has about 20 high school kids working at the shop 10-20 hours a week, he said. “Once they get out of high school, if they want to go on to community college we’ll pay for it. As long as they work a minimum of 10 hours a week” and agree to work for the company for at least one year after graduation.

Focusing energy on recent high school graduates, who Magyari said are generally “really enthusiastic” might work better than trying to placate “middle band” employees who are not management material but have “a mindset that they should have some kind of initials in front of their job title.”

In the last five years, “the high school students are coming out much more educated and capable and have a way better attitude,” he added.

Continuous training is another complication today’s manufacturers must master, said Elisha Tropper, CEO of Cambridge Security Seals. His Pomona, NY-based firm makes and supplies tamper-evident and tamper-resistant loss prevention seals and associated products.

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Cambridge Security Seals CEO Elisha Tropper

“It’s not just new employees whom we’re training for new technologies, it’s existing employees,” he said. “Every time you switch a technology, or even switch a vendor within a technology, it requires additional training or new training. The instant obsolescence of a process people have been following for a while kicks in. Then you have to lean heavily on the vendors to train your existing employees. Some vendors are great at it, but some vendors don’t know the first thing about how to do it.

“For us, that’s a 24/7 kind of concern because progressing means you’re always behind the eight ball.”

Alternatively, Cambridge Security Seals is keen on discovering “new technologies that can replace the skills workers lack,” he said, mentioning advances in automation and robotics.

Atlas Stamping and Manufacturing has had “a lot of success with Department of Labor grants that pay 50% of the training for apprentices, or a pre-apprenticeship program that they’re now doing,” Prigodich-Reed said.

“We’re only 37 people strong,” Prigodich-Reed said. “So we continually have to train, and obviously the cost is a burden to us. So any help that the government can give us is beneficial.”

Tropper acknowledged that apprenticeship programs can help with the brain drain around craft-like areas, such as toolmaking and machine maintenance. But, he quickly added, apprenticeship programs are “very time consuming and success isn’t guaranteed.”

Keep ties with productive employees

On the other end of the employment pipeline, employee retention is extremely important these days, Magyari said, responding to a roundtable question about the aging workforce and the industry’s resulting brain drain.

The folks who built IMMY’s augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) headsets have played a role in the construction of the James Webb Telescope, as well as in the maintenance of the Hubble Space Telescope. So, he said, “I don’t let my 70-plus-year-olds go if they’ll stay because they’re just incredibly knowledgeable. And they seem to want to pass that on.”

One IMMY employee is 75. Another is 76. “They just know a lot,” Magyari said.

When people do retire, Tropper said, “you have to try and maintain the relationships” so that you can call them when you have a problem. “I hate when people burn bridges because while today you don’t need them, tomorrow you will. Or today they don’t need you, but tomorrow they will.”

Understand new realities

AR and VR have also given birth to the remote expert—an experienced hand, perhaps a retired employee, who is living in, say, Florida or Florence, Italy, and can in real time troubleshoot a down machine “like he’s right in the shop” that is situated in another state or country, Magyari said.

“This remote expert can do real-time annotation. He can draw over that guy’s line of sight and say, ‘Do you see this?’ ‘Make this adjustment’ or ‘swap that out’.”

It may well make sense to put people who have retired and still love the trade “on a little retainer and say, ‘I’m going to call you once a month’ so they are there to back you up,” Magyari said. “I think that’s going to be a really big leveraging tool.”

Also, remote experts who are strangers but have special knowledge and reside in far-flung locations will be helpful going forward, he said.

Take progressive die stamping, in which manufacturers send a coil of metal through a machine that involves of a series of stamping stations performing simultaneous operations. Korean manufacturers have the edge today, Magyari said.

“If you have a tool built over there and it’s over here, how do you deal with it? Well, with this remote world now, the guys that built it and designed it can in real time, say, ‘Okay, you’ve got to nudge that over, shim that, speed that up a little bit.’ So it’s really going to be a phenomenal tool.”

Modeling simulation, which is being embraced at schools like Lawerence Technological University of suburban Detroit, is a powerful AR/VR-enabled tool that will greatly quicken the time it takes to train employees in manufacturing, he said. “It’s going to impact everything at a level that you just can’t imagine.”

It is wise to also “sensor up” and follow the example GE, FANUC and PTC have set by embracing the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Magyari said.

Be data driven to avail yourself to predictive analytics, he suggested. “We are barely into that. But it already is having an impact,” including the ability to anticipate failure by machines that to the human eye and ear seemed fine.

‘Hire slow, fire fast’

Many business management books suggest it’s wise to “hire slow, fire fast,” Cao said. “We definitely believe in that mantra.”

IC3D Printers’ approach is to bring potential hires in to “hang out for one month or three months and get paid in some cases,” he said, noting that the short engagements can be thought of as internships.

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IC3D Printers CEO Michael Cao

In these situations, he is able to get a good feel for a person’s attitude. And, he said, it is easy to see whether the person jibes with your culture.

“That’s a huge deal for us,” Cao said. “And, in that one-month-to-three-month kind of internship, you really get a pretty good sense of someone’s ability to problem solve.”

Finding “lasting, trainable, ambitious line operators who are willing to commit the weeks, months, sometimes even years to really develop their skills” has become particularly challenging, Tropper said.

“We really have to do a better job of giving applicants as much information as we can about the line and line operations, about what the job is going to entail, what it’s going to be like, and what the learning curve is going to be,” he said. “We have to do a much better job at the hiring stage.”

Once employees are hired, manufactures are making it clear what workers need to do to move up. For example, Cambridge Security Seals now has a tiered pay scale for line operators, with milestones they need to achieve to move up the scale.

On top of that, the company is “trying to cross train now more than we’ve ever done before. Our hope and goal is to keep things interesting for our employees.”

Karen Haywood Queen contributed to this article.

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