When Rolar Products Inc. recently added a 10-axis Swiss-style screw machine to its shop floor, the Muskegon-based provider of precision machine products turned to its senior-most employee to take the reins of the latest innovation.
“We’ve been in the screw machine business for 35 years and one of our original employees is here — he’s been here for 35 years,” Rolar Products President Jack Russell told MiBiz. “He ran screw machines (throughout his career) and we’re training him on the big brother, automated, magic machine that can do 10 axes. A lot of that machining talent and knowhow transfers.”
That situation is essentially a microcosm of a talent dilemma that many manufacturers are dealing with as they migrate to the smart technologies associated with Industry 4.0.
Manufacturers such as tool and die makers that rely heavily on the advanced skills of senior workers are left trying to balance that with the incoming Industry 4.0-centric talent that is traditionally lighter on the skills but more tech savvy.
Rolar’s latest investment is certainly a stride in the direction of Industry 4.0. The bar-fed CNC machine is capable of running continuously as long as it has feedstock.
Right now, Rolar operates the machine unattended during the second shift, and when that crew goes home, it remains operating overnight, dumping products in the bin roughly every 16 seconds.
Russell said that while the machine is currently underutilized because of a dip in demand brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, he eventually looks to acquire additional models for the company.
Building up an army of these machines can ultimately lead to a lights-out factory floor, where humans are only used to feed materials throughout the operation.
This scenario is considered by many to be the end game of Industry 4.0, seemingly eliminating the human element from operations as much as possible and achieving greater speed and efficiency. However, humans will always be a factor — and the talent has a profound influence on a shop’s ultimate effectiveness.
“Technology is not the end all, be all,” said Justine Burdette, director of the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center-West (MMTC) in Grand Rapids. “We’re not there yet. Humans are still going to have jobs, but they may look and feel a little different going forward.”
Changing of the guard
During this transition time, where many manufacturers are just now starting to embrace Industry 4.0 technology, the balance of knowledge and skill is a delicate one.
“The skills that perhaps an older generation has — I think about a tool and die maker, that’s still a lot of times a really hands-on, knowledge-based role,” Burdette said. “There has been innovation, there are ways to automate some of that work, but still it does come down to a very skilled person and that knowledge still has to be transferred from person to person.”
This exchange of knowledge can manifest itself in many forms, from sitting side-by-side at a bench or through developing some form of digital training. In some cases, a robot can be trained to carry out some form of the required tasks.
“I think about the sheer tribal knowledge of processes and how things are done in any manufacturing business,” Burdette said. “I think about any job you could have on a manufacturing floor: Who teaches you how to do it? It’s usually one of the most senior people on the floor who has done it for a long time. Are there ways we can capture that extensive knowledge?”
With the generational exchange of knowledge and skills being so important to the manufacturing industry today, the Michigan Manufacturers Association has focused efforts on providing training to allow all workers to acquire the tools they need to operate effectively inside Industry 4.0.
“We look for education partners, whether they’re community colleges or they might be something like the MMTC to provide training onsite and offsite,” said MMA President John Walsh. “Employers tend to do a lot of their own training. They have folks who have created the assembly line or the machinery that is used and they will provide training. But we need a more robust system to have employees leave the factory, get the training and come back.”
While large manufacturers can tap into the resources of local community colleges to provide training and education for prospective employees, Walsh said most of those opportunities tend to be one-offs. What he would like to see are more cohesive relationships.
“What I really hope for, and would be beneficial to the industry, is to make that more routine, to allow educational institutions to have better foresight of what’s coming. That’s where we want to get,” he said. “Education has been a struggle since technology entered the workplace. I think our educational institutions are doing a decent job, but my vision is something so symbiotic and so together that it’s working at a much faster pace.”
On top of this generational issue, there is the ever-lingering talent shortage and skills gap that continues to hang over manufacturers today, because fewer younger workers are interested in the industry at the same time older employees retire at a much greater rate.
The Michigan Manufacturers Association is doing its part to work with educational institutions and already is aiming its message at junior high students.
“Statistics show, in order to attract folks to engineering, production and manufacturing in general, you really have to get them in seventh or eighth grade to show them what it means and have them realize that they are good-paying jobs and stable,” Walsh said. “We’ll be reaching out to school systems to get students at factories to see it’s a viable career choice.”
Keeping talent in the shop
Still, it is impossible to train and develop talent within a company if that talent leaves, which underscores the importance of retention.
At Rolar Products, Russell incentivizes his team in a few different ways.
“For us, we’ve got a very strong corporate culture,” he said. “I try to pay my people more than anywhere else. A lot of people say, ‘Why would you do that?’ and I always say because they work here.
“Our approach to employees and engagement — whether you’re tech savvy or you’re an old dog and need to get taught some new tricks — the key to me is the buy-in of the employee. My opinion is: You don’t get buy-in unless they understand what they’re part of and why they matter.”