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The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) conducted its “Manufacturers’ Outlook Survey” for the third quarter of 2021 from Aug. 19 to 30. (www.nam.org/manufacturers-outlook-survey). The report published on Sept. 9, 2021, paints a picture of “healthy expansion” among U.S. manufacturers, according to the purchasing managers surveyed.

“Manufacturing activity remains robust, especially demand, with the U.S. and global economy continuing to rebound from the sizable declines in spring 2020. Real GDP and manufacturing production now exceed pre-pandemic levels, which is encouraging.”

According to NAM’s recent survey, findings, the growth rates anticipated by manufacturers include sales, production, prices, raw material prices, and inventories. However, record-setting growth rates were projected for full-time employment (a record high dating to the Association’s first survey, in the 4th quarter of 1997); employee wages, (also a record high dating to that first survey); health-insurance costs (highest since the Association’s 2nd-quarter survey of 2018); and capital investment (also the highest since the 2nd-quarter 2018 survey).

However, despite the anticipation manufacturing growth there will be challenges along the way, primarily in supply-chain- related issues and, especially, in attracting and retaining a quality workforce. While supply-chain problems appeared to be especially concerning to the survey respondents, the dominant risks to the economic outlook seemed to be (no surprise) “workforce shortages.”

Let’s weave these survey responses into a tapestry of future manufacturing and manufactured goods. Consumer prices will continue to increase as will shortages. The lead times from placing orders to receiving goods will increase. Manufacturing employee wages and health insurance costs will rise, but the ability to attract and retain manufacturing employees looks bleak. And capital investment is projected to be the highest since 2018. But there’s more. . .

Given this future view, I believe the anticipated capital investment is likely to target higher levels of plant-floor automation and flexible manufacturing technologies to leverage the current staffing levels. Even though relative costs for automation are lower than decades ago, manufacturers are still facing those costly supply-chain and workforce issues. But we can see where manufacturing in headed: increased productivity per employee through modernization and automation to stabilize (or reduce) the cost of unit produced.

Along with higher levels of automation and manufacturing technologies come the need for “new tech” and “higher tech” skills on the plant floor. Maintenance technicians will be challenged to troubleshoot, maintain, and repair technologies that they’ve not seen before. Design engineers must keep this in mind as they are reaching to the stars for new manufacturing technologies. Procurement specifications must include OEM documentation and training for the plant employees who are about to inherit new technologies. Top management must grease the skids to facilitate more release time for employee training before, during, and after installation.

In my career, I have had numerous opportunities to see the plant-floor impact of new technologies, big and small. I have spearheaded massive training and qualification efforts to enable the local workforce to catch up with the operations and maintenance demands of new manufacturing automation. I also have seen equipment engineers in small to medium-sized plants morph into equipment troubleshooters and maintenance leaders because technician skill levels had not caught up with the technologies installed 12-months (or more) prior.

The lessons learned? “Turnkey” automation is NOT actually “turnkey” until an organization’s plant-floor staff and technicians have the ability to operate, troubleshoot, maintain, and repair what was installed.

Probably the most dramatic widespread impact of new manufacturing technologies occurred in the early 1980s, as we were training maintenance technicians to deal with a new generation of equipment installed at a number of North American sites. Some of the industrial robots installed in assembly lines required no less than five separate maintenance-job classifications to train technicians to troubleshoot, maintain, and repair mechanical, electrical, electronic, hydraulic, and welding equipment. This proved to be more than a “training” project because it also involved culture change and transforming job classifications. But there’s more. . .

After spending $35 billion on GM-10 robots & automation from 1982 to 1986, Roger Smith, General Motors Chairman & CEO, summed the situation up this way: “Without the right people given the right training to correctly use the system and make the right decisions, technology only gives us the opportunity to make scrap faster.”

Smith’s statement said it all. But lest you forget, his observation remains as true today as it was in the 1980s.TRR

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. Williamson’s 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 bwilliamson@theramreview.com.

Tags: reliability, availability, maintenance, RAM, skills shortages, workforce development, workforce training, automation, National Association of Manufacturers