Manufacturing in America is a global force to reckon with. Our technology, machinery, facilities, and transportation systems are powerful and robust. The challenge we had prior to the advent of COVID-19, was availability of a sustainable and skilled workforce in many geographic regions of the United States. Today, after some 18 months of uncertainty due to the pandemic, that workforce challenge, especially in terms of the factory floor, is not only continuing to grow, it reflects the weakest link in the economic recovery.
Interestingly, the Manufacturers Alliance, in partnership with Aon, recently conducted an extensive workforce-related survey of some 400 human-resource and functional leaders in large manufacturing companies. The resulting report, “Workforce Priorities for A Hybrid World, The Future of Flexible Work in Manufacturing,” was published in July 2021 (see link below). Among other things, the survey found that virtual work and flexible work models may be here to stay.
But what about the factory floor, where actual manufacturing takes place? For sure, there is nothing “virtual” or “flexible” about the making and shipping of widgets. The relative ease of shifting to remote and flexible work in the front offices of manufacturing companies seems to have been enabled, in large part, by two forces: technology and desperately willing top- management teams. Would that apply to production operations?
For many manufacturers, returning to traditional ways of work simply will not be an option. Something must change if they are to attract, hire, and retain a capable workforce. Therefore, I believe technology and desperately willing top-management teams will also help alter work cultures on factory floors. Respondents to the Manufacturing Alliance/Aon survey suggested offering “flexible working hours, compressed work weeks, split shifts, shift swapping, and part-time positions.” Use of such enticements with plant-floor workforces would look very different than use among the carpet dwellers in front offices.
We have another option, of course: Technology can automate our manufacturing processes, and much of it is far more affordable than it was a decade ago. In fact, given the rising cost of labor over the past decade, with increasing healthcare-cost burdens and skills shortages, many businesses have already automated some of their labor-intensive processes. The times we are in call for—make that scream for—large-scale automation. Yet, while process automation can be easier for large, deep-pocketed companies than for the smalls, it’s still a huge challenge.
There are four big hurdles to be overcome when automating manufacturing processes: availability, installation, sustainable reliability, and work-culture change. And remember, skills and labor shortages are widespread in these post-pandemic times. Moreover, despite the supply chain’s efforts to heal and keep up, manufacturers of automation technologies aren’t immune to the production-barrier ills that others face these days.
To repeat: RAM professionals are on manufacturing’s front line. Skill shortages may be affecting our ranks, but there are recruiting and training efforts underway in many companies to remedy the situation. In addition, we have technologies for carrying out data collection, analysis, and problem-solving somewhat remotely. However, the boots-on-the-ground parts of reliability and maintenance will not be virtual or remote.
So, consider this option: Recruit and train displaced production workers to wear some RAM “boots.” They’ll be familiar with industrial environments and the importance of plant equipment. Then, let’s train our current production workers to care more for their machines than they did in the past, and, in the process, become the eyes and ears for reliability, availability, and maintenance improvement.TRR
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob Williamson is a long-time contributor to the people-side of the world-class-maintenance and manufacturing body of knowledge across dozens of industry types. His background in maintenance, machine and tool design, and teaching has positioned his work with over 500 companies and plants, facilities, and equipment-oriented organizations. Contact him directly at 512-800-6031 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tags: reliability, availability, maintenance, RAM, asset management, skills shortages, automation, workforce development