Even during this era of job hopping, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that the average worker spends just four years and change before moving out and moving on, there remain professionals like Jeff Owens. He graduated with a bachelor’s in business administration in 1987, joined Advanced Technology Services the next year, and has worked his way up a single corporate ladder ever since.
“This,” he says, “has been my whole career.”
His career has, in turn, mirrored the growth and life of the company, which split from Caterpillar in 1985 and has enjoyed regular growth throughout the three ensuing decades. The company is designed not to manufacture anything, per se, but to allow manufacturers to run better. Technology is a key to the whole operation. People are the heart.
Here, Owens shares lessons learned during three decades of growing with a business and helping others help themselves.
IW: What trends do you see in the next six months, 12 months, 18 months even, that can make factories run even better?
JO: The technology, the predictive, the data and all that is imperative — you have to have the right systems — but the biggest trend in our world is people. There’s such a lack of skilled people. How do you take them, treat them and develop them? A lot of the technology we’re implementing is in the recruiting of, and just finding, people. That is a huge focus in the world of maintenance and manufacturing.
IW: Related to that, the most recent BLS jobs reports showed a net gain of 29,000 manufacturing jobs in January, just 4,000 fewer than the sector added in all of 2015. How does that relate to recruiting and retention?
JO: Manufacturing growing is a good thing, obviously, and manufacturing being relevant in the U.S. is a good thing. We’ve seen, over the last several years, a stabilization of manufacturing, even a reemergence of manufacturing, and that’s fantastic. What we’re finding, though, is that it’s a pretty tight job market, especially when it comes to the skills we’re looking for, the high tech.
IW: What do you look for then?
JO: People worry about where they are today, they worry about stability, they worry, of course about compensation. From our perspective, these are very good jobs, and it can be really challenging. The stability of plants is a big issue, because you have companies that come and go, you have companies that move plants around. Personally, we’ve diversified, and we’re in lots of plants in lots of industries — automotive, aerospace, food processing, heavy equipment, building products.
IW: You mentioned data a minute ago. Big data is such a buzzword. How do you break through that buzzword and help deliver measurable analytics? It’s so easy to collect, collect, collect, and never actually use the data.
JO: First, you have to make sure you have good, accurate information. Personally, we’ve outfitted all our technicians with tablets, so they can open and close calls right there at the machine, right with their toolbox, they can look up prints and schematics in manuals, they can order parts. The software we use can all be accessed through a phone, a tablet. And then you get into big data and analytics. We focus on key metrics, so we have dashboards and metrics that can be looked at in real time, any time, on machine availability — what percent of the work we’re doing is proactive, what kind of planning is going on — and then we have many ways to go into that data and figure out why something is failing.
Say we have an Allen-Bradley motor drive that’s failing just over and over. We’ll chase it all the way down to capacitors that were maybe sized wrong for the drive, or sized wrong for the application. Then we have an application that, when those drives come in, we replace all the capacitors. We can get pretty granular with it, and it can extend the life of assets. … We’ve moved to the Microsoft Business Intelligence product. It’s pretty familiar, maybe more user-friendly, and as all that data gets sifted, many people can access it. A Six Sigma black belt might get in and look at the data one way, a planner might be looking ahead to major outages and will look at what happened at another plant.
We take a lot information from that data and make sure we’re using it to work more safely. … The data in the warehouse is the key to a ton of activity.
IW: The last decade has been filled with transitions, I imagine, and different approaches.
JO: I have found that the more uncertain the economy is, the more our customers come to us with shorter-term needs that involve the building blocks of maintenance — the computerized maintenance management system, the spare parts, predictive maintenance, preventative maintenance, remedial maintenance, lubrication, vibration — and they have issues that need to be solved.
IW: I know you like to keep pace, if not set the pace, when it comes to newer technology, and right now predictive maintenance is a big area. What have you been working on last year and this year? And how has it evolved?
JO: We say we make businesses run better, we make factories run better, and for the most part, we do that by getting involved in plant maintenance in some way. We work with companies like Caterpillar, Honeywell, Eaton, Michelin, Honda. Since we came from Caterpillar, our focus was on the larger plant, the automated plants, that’s where our expertise lies, and our focus is normally automation.
Our measurement of success is machine availability, machine uptime. That could be for a large conveyor line, that could be for robotics, welders, machine tools, servers, switches, routers. How do you keep it where it’s running and available? How do you keep it running faster with higher quality and accuracy? To do that, there are all kinds of things you have to do, like, What is the most advanced lubrication technology? Predictive maintenance? Monitoring of vibration and heat? We use a lot of data gathering and data mining to make sure we know why things are failing and how to get to the root cause of failing.
IW: What are some of the key lessons you’ve learned during the last almost three decades?
JO: My philosophy, and my observation of the industry, is that maintenance is just becoming more and more critical to operations, and more companies are considering it a non-core function. It isn’t something they have to own and possess. The things they need to focus on are the things their customers touch and feel. So what is their product design? What are the features of that product? But if someone else can do maintenance in their plants better than they can, that’s a benefit to their customer, and it’s no longer a core function. Their customers aren’t basing their purchases on whether maintenance is done by them or an outside firm.