Dan Brookhouse can’t stress enough to his control engineering students that automation is the future for the manufacturing industry.
Just as automation is reshaping how manufacturers approach their processes on the shop floor, the technology also has created change in the classroom with how educators are preparing the workers of tomorrow.
“They have to understand how important it is to know (automation). Either you are using this equipment or you are designing a product to see how automation would go into it,” said Brookhouse, a controls engineer at Johnson Controls International plc and an adjunct professor at Grand Valley State University. “It’s going so fast, as far as the automation world, and I don’t think things are keeping up with it as fast as the demand is.”
Already, automation is driving how local manufacturers train their employees, whether that’s requiring attendance at classes from automation equipment manufacturers or hosting learning events at their plants to up-skill existing workers on the new technology.
But the seismic shift in industry that’s fueled by automation also poses challenges for educators, particularly given how rapidly the sector continues to evolve.
“Years ago, we had a lot of hands-on, assembly- type of manufacturing. Now we are going more toward automation and robotics, and robotics is key because of the consistency of the programs,” Brookhouse said. “We are missing the gap between how do people run that stuff. You still have to program it, you have to be able to set it up, (and) you have to understand it.”
Equipment manufacturers themselves typically offer training programs on their products, but those sessions can quickly get expensive. For example, Milwaukee, Wis.-based Rockwell Automation Inc. charges up to $3,000 for a oneweek class, according to Brookhouse.
To identify workers with the needed technical skills, JCI — a global manufacturer with an automotive lithium-ion battery plant in Holland — hosts “lunch and learn” events with its automation equipment suppliers.
Brookhouse said suppliers involved with the sessions are “training what they sell” while also “promoting their products.”
“We have the experts come in and train all of the individuals on concepts … more than the details,” he said. “The training is to educate individuals in the field when using new products and to help understand new safety laws.”
Oftentimes, suppliers also donate equipment to GVSU’s John C. Kennedy Hall of Engineering, allowing students to become well-versed in automation controls, a field that seems to be lacking qualified people right now, according to Brookhouse.
“A lot of the college kids are coming out with mechanical engineering degrees (product, design and manufacturing) and some of the manufacturing engineers are really eating this stuff up,” he said. “They’re loving this type of training and want more, whereas the older and even younger maintenance guys (and) general electricians are a little more hesitant to grab ahold of that information.”
Compounding the technological shift for manufacturers is a major demographic change as more baby boomers continue to retire and exit the workforce. When they do, “information is walking out the door,” said Joe Dyer, team leader of manufacturing technology at Disher Corp., a Zeeland-based engineering, consulting and product development firm.
In the shift, manufacturers are losing both skilled workers and the institutional knowledge they’ve relied upon to operate their businesses for decades.
“Now that this mass retirement is happening, we have to put more focus on it,” Dyer said. “That’s why you are starting to see a focus on training, on apprenticeships. You are starting to see (manufacturers) wanting to have apprenticeships, wanting to have that coaching relationship.”
Dyer’s concerns about baby boomers align with national data. According to the National Association of Manufacturers, the industry will need to hire 3.5 million more factory workers over the next decade.
With baby boomers reaching age 60 to 78 by 2024, it’s critical for manufacturers to have them work now to train the budding generation of millennial workers, Dyer said. That’s led to more of a focus on coaching and training opportunities to help transfer that institutional knowledge and instill new workers with problem-solving abilities, he said.
“We need to start gaining more and more of that tribal knowledge, and then use that as a springboard to grow to more automation and more intentional productivity improvements,” Dyer said. “One thing that we’ve been finding with our discussions with customers is that with baby boomers retiring … especially maintenance technicians, companies are starting to take a real hard look at and are seeing the writing on the wall that we have to train (our people).”
Manufacturers also realize they need to help local schools promote the automation side of engineering, which includes careers in machine design, programmable logic controllers and robotics, according to Dyer.
“There’s very few machine design degrees or controls and automation degrees. There’s shockingly few,” he said.
As an engineer and educator, JCI’s Brookhouse said it falls on people like him to show students what careers are available in manufacturing.
“If (my students) choose to do controls engineering, great. And beyond, that there are some companies in West Michigan that offer help with mentorships,” Brookhouse said. “When they get out of college, they have someone to work with. For the ones not interested in the automation part, I always stress to them how important it is to at least understand it.”