Published in Manufacturing
Nate Koetje Nate Koetje COURTESY PHOTO

Service provider expects automation demand to remain strong in 2022

BY Tuesday, December 21, 2021 08:41am

As businesses face a profound talent crunch prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies have turned to automation to fill the gaps. The shift has proven to be a major boon to companies like Walker-based electrical services and industrial technology firm Feyen Zylstra LLC. With a workforce of around 550 employees and hubs throughout the country, Feyen Zylstra specializes in working with manufacturers to implement advanced technology in operations. CEO Nate Koetje recently discussed why he expects this acceleration toward Industry 4.0 adoption to continue in the coming year, and how his company can meet that surging demand.

Manufacturers continue to struggle with filling positions and are looking to automate certain processes in their operations. But is the labor shortage the only significant factor spurring this surge in automation demand?

There are maybe two forces that kind of collided to spur it on. The first one is workforce shortages. I think it was something like 3 million people left the workforce during the pandemic that have not returned. That might be factor one, combined with increased demand — not just in the U.S, but globally. So, you’ve got your resources declining and demand increasing, and you’re looking for a solution to that. Seeing most of those trends continue for multiple years tends to make manufacturers more willing to make investments — maybe investments they thought about making before COVID.

And these are problems that will carry over into the upcoming year?

We look at 2022 and see demand continuing to grow and manufacturers continuing to struggle to meet that demand. I don’t think we’ll see a shift in that. Our challenge as the service provider to many of those manufacturers is to take a long view. How are we solving problems over multiple years? Twenty-four, 36 months — that’s how many of our clients are thinking about this, which results in them being willing to invest in longer-term solutions than what they would have been pre-pandemic when the workforce wasn’t as tight as it is now.

Has the sudden and dire nature of these client needs changed the way that Feyen Zylstra is doing business?

With the supply-side issues and finding talent, those types of things cause us, and probably others, to be more selective in which business to take on because your resources feel more constrained than maybe what they have been in the past.

We’re seeing trends from the introduction of robotics in a different way — maybe an easier way to do plant floor implementation — and we see the demand for data collection on the plant floor to drive decision making. All of that stuff has been accelerated, and in terms of our selection process. It really is about ensuring that the client knows what they need and walking them through it.

Are manufacturers now coming to grips with the fact that this probably isn’t a temporary workforce shortage as much as it is a permanent workforce shrinkage?

We expect it to get better, but not go back to where it was. I think we’ll continue to slowly see — much slower than I think employers would desire — employees trickle back into the workforce, but that trickle isn’t going to make up for the river flow out.

Have supply chain issues made it tough to procure materials for your own use?

Certainly that’s been a challenge. We have great relationships with a variety of partners. Another thing maybe unique about (Feyen Zylstra) is our relationships are really national and so we have some additional resources we can bring into the West Michigan market, whether that’s technology partners or on the supply side for components and equipment. But it’s certainly challenging with managing customers’ expectations around long lead times and ensuring that we’re not making promises we can’t deliver on as a result of that.

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