Northrop Grumman
Automated Assembly

Why Automation Needs Apprenticeships

Nov. 27, 2018
American companies rushed to invest in automation, but not the training needed to operate, maintain, troubleshoot and repair the equipment.

U.S. corporations have invested heavily in automating their manufacturing plants to reduce labor. They buy robots, palletizers, conveyors and a wide range of packaging machines to automate their production lines. Data from the Robotics Institute shows that U.S. companies purchased 22,708 robots in 2017, a total value of $1.31 billion. The Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI) shows that purchases of packaging machinery were valued at $7 billion in 2017.

This big investment in automation is projected to go on many years. The McKinsey Institute predicts that by 2030, 39 to 73 million jobs that exist today – one-third of the US workforce– will be automated.

Yes, automation will eliminate millions of low-skilled jobs, but it will also create millions of high-skilled jobs to operate, maintain, troubleshoot and repair these automatic systems.

However, there are many problems operating and maintaining this equipment, and there are simply not enough workers with these kinds of skills in the United States.

Automation without Training

This is not a new problem. In 1990, the National Center on Education and Economy issued a report, "America's workforce – America's Choice: High or Low Wages?” Many other reports on the skills gap followed. Recently, the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte released another skills gap study that says that the skills gap “is expected to grow from 448,000 jobs left open today to as many as 2.4 million jobs between 2015 and 2025.”

The essence of this problem is that the workers needed do not exist and will have to be created with lengthy training that matches the automation that corporations have purchased.

I think it is fair to say that American companies rushed to invest in automation, but did not make a similar commitment or investment in the training needed to operate, maintain, troubleshoot, and repair all of the automation they purchased.

I recently interviewed an executive at a robotic systems integrator providing custom end-of-line palletizing solutions that include the robotic arm, end-of-arm tools, conveyors, automatic pallet dispensers, sheet feeders and other associated peripheral equipment.

About 20% of the company’s customers have employees with all of the skills needed to maintain robot systems. Although their solutions are “self-contained” and rarely require a client to perform programmable logic controller (PLC) work, having someone on staff who can work with PLCs and do both the routine electrical and mechanical system maintenance is important—and rare.

The ideal skill set for a technician to assemble, operate, maintain, troubleshoot and repair a robot system would include:

  • Mechanical ability to drill and tap; assemble chains, subassemblies, wire motors, and conveyors; and integrate pallet dispensers, sheet feeders and other packaging machinery.
  • Ability to assemble and install typical sensors and pneumatics of a robot system.
  • Working knowledge of pneumatics and hydraulics.
  • Ability to read mechanical and electrical prints.
  • Ability to troubleshoot all components of the system.
  •  Ability to troubleshoot and program PLCs, HMIs, VFDs, and other controller and sensor software
  • Ability to do preventative maintenance of all components of the robot system.

An advanced apprenticeship training program that could handle all the requirements of this this job description takes between 2,000 to 4,000 hours to complete, depending on the background and experience of the worker. The system integrator interviewed did not know of any customer who is offering this kind of advanced training.

Many of their customers do not stock repair parts. This forces the OEM/integrator to carry a large supply of repair parts for all of their installed systems, to support their customers with 24-hour parts delivery in case of emergency. If the production line should stop because of an electrical or mechanical failure, without readily available parts on the shelf—or in stock at the integrator—the customer must quickly hire people to manually stack the products coming off the line. This is expensive and defeats the whole idea of an automatic system.

Their conclusion is that many customers that invest in automated robot systems do not make the same commitment to training their workers to maintain, troubleshoot, and repair their systems when necessary. Historically, this integrator has tried to hire people who already have the necessary skills, but finding those people has become more difficult every year. Instead, they are recruiting individuals with some automation skills, an attitude for the work and a desire to learn, and providing on-the-job training to develop the suite of skills to provide capable and competent technicians.

My former company, Columbia Machine, is the leading manufacturer of palletizer systems, which are large machines that automatically stack products on pallets. I recently interviewed an executive there to find out the capabilities and problems of customers who must operate, maintain, troubleshoot and repair the automated equipment.

The first thing he told me was that they did not know of any customer who used apprentice training—the advanced training that leads to journeyman status—as their primary training method. He also said that very few maintenance technicians could operate, maintain, troubleshoot and repair their automatic palletizer systems.

I was surprised to hear that only about 10% of their customers do a good job of preventative maintenance, and for that reason, production line stoppages are a regular occurrence. Palletizer systems are controlled by programmable logic controllers (PLCS), but very few of the customer maintenance people can reprogram the controller. In fact, less than 50% of their customers have the ability to connect their PLCs to the internet, which would allow Columbia to know what is going on in the control system.

Community College Training

There are signs that many community colleges are addressing the skills gap with new programs. PMMI sponsors a certificate program called mechatronics that includes learning modules for industrial electricity, fluid power, mechanical components motors, and controls. The program takes about the same time as an associate degree and certifies an entry-level maintenance technician.

Most of the corporations that have invested in automation have some kind of training program. But to acquire all of the specific skills required to operate, maintain, troubleshoot and repair (OMTR) automated systems requires longer-term training like apprentice training, which can take from one to four years to complete and can lead to journeyman status for the worker.

If apprentice training is what is needed in manufacturing to solve the skills gap, it is simply not happening in the United States. The Department of Labor keeps a database of all apprentices registered with the federal government. It shows that in 2001, there were 20,950 registered apprentices in manufacturing. In 2009 ,the number had fallen to 18,699. In 2017, there were 553,000 registered apprentices, but there were only 17,500 apprentices in manufacturing. This is less than 1% of the total number of people working in manufacturing.

I don't think that America's public corporations have bought into the idea of long-term apprentice training, for several reasons. First, public corporations today are financially driven by short-term results—and 8,000-hour training programs would probably not meet their return-on-investment objectives. Second, it is pretty obvious they thought they could get by with short-term and on-the-job training. Third, I think these corporations would also be resistant to the idea of investing in years of training for a worker to obtain a journeyman certificate that allows them the credentials to then shop their skills to the highest bidder.

My field interviews also indicated that the corporations have other labor problems that contribute to the skills gap issue. Besides the lack of training, they describe other problems that make it difficult for any OEM to keep their equipment running. Many customers are using contract and temporary workers on their production lines, and many workers do not speak English, which makes using diagnostic systems on the machinery very challenging. The customers also move people around in maintenance assignments, and inexperienced people can end up in maintenance situations where they do not have the training or experience.

These problems can lead to "line down" situations where the OEM has to respond with overnight, emergency service. This becomes very expensive for both the OEM and the customer. It also leads to the customer relying on the OEM to bail them out when there is a problem on the line.

What Is Needed?

Corporations need to bite the bullet and invest in long-term apprentice training that will give maintenance people all of the skills to operate maintain, troubleshoot and repair the automation.

Manufacturing has a negative image with students, counselors, and parents. To overcome this image and have a chance at reducing their skills gap, they are going to have to offer more than just a job. To get the bright, skilled people they need in the future, I think they should:

  • Create a job profile listing all of the skills needed for a particular role.
  • Hire people as interns and pay them a salary for the duration of the training.
  • Pay them for skills attained as they progress.
  • Promote the position as a career, not a job.
  • Guarantee them a certificate at the end of the training

If the McKinsey Institute is correct, American manufacturers will continue to buy complex automation systems far into the future. It is time that these corporations make a similar investment in the people they depend on to maintain and troubleshoot these complex systems. Only then will we make any inroads in the skills gap.

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