How to get your workforce ready for the newest wave of technology

If you want to see where manufacturing technology in Northeast Ohio is heading, look to the automotive and aerospace industries. For example, mass customization has evolved so manufacturers can make SUVs a different color in the middle of a production run or outfit vehicles with customer options on cue.

These companies and their suppliers, who are increasingly near-sourced, are focused on automation and programmable logic controllers or PLCs, robotics, micro-electro-mechanical systems or MEMS, Nano technology, 3-D printing and Industry 4.0. Started by the Germans, Industry 4.0, is said by some to be the next evolution of manufacturing.

“It’s where you take everything along the production and assembly lines and connect it together through cyber or computer technology so that you can use all that power and information to chain together decisions in the most efficient manner,” says Dave Bredenbeck, program manager of precision machining at Cuyahoga Community College. “It’s a different way of looking at it. A skilled tradesman would be monitoring the decisions these machines come up with, instead of fully making the decision from the beginning.”

Smart Business spoke with Bredenbeck and Lam Wong, associate dean of engineering at Cuyahoga Community College, about how these technologies allow manufacturers to work smarter, and why you need to develop the skills to support this now.

How do you think these technologies will influence the region?

Industries like automotive have embraced connectivity, and other sectors are starting to see the advantages. Cisco systems can be described as the backbone of IT; Cisco has embraced this next level of manufacturing, so the infrastructure is already responding.

This is also coming from the top down. The big players have money to build up these systems and develop them — and over time that trickles down to their vendors, who need to embrace it to stay relevant. Just like with CNC machines and robots, eventually the technology standardizes and becomes cheaper for smaller companies.

Manufacturers — and other companies indirectly affected by the industry — must be ready to plug into this connectivity and already be re-thinking their work processes and training. Workers are still needed, just not in the same way.

How should employers stay on top of these trends?

Monitor the industry leaders, keep in touch with colleges and universities, and do a self-assessment of where your company is at with the Internet of Things.

Manufacturers often are too focused down on the immediate. You need to map out what your needs will be, in order to plan for the big picture. For example, employers ask higher education institutions for graduates to fulfill their short-term needs, but they don’t have time to serve on advisory committees that develop new curriculum and training programs.

Even if you aren’t ready to commit to these technologies, start thinking about getting your people ready, by hiring new talent, cross-training and up-scaling your current workforce or filling in other gaps.

What kind of training do you recommend?

Traditionally manufacturers have hired engineers, but in the future it’s going to be critical to have IT expertise. Health care has already gone through this with the development of health information technology and electronic records. Clinicians had to learn about IT, and IT experts had to develop clinical backgrounds.

For manufacturing, higher education is beginning to train students to understand software, IT and automation, as well as developing mechanical and problem-solving skills. Companies are going to need people who can connect the dots between machines and repair complex systems and sensors. New graduates must learn so much more from IT and wireless communication to data mining.

Train your people now for the next job that they’re going to have. Survey your employees to determine who would like to learn new skills, while also vetting new hires for skills in these technologies. Don’t ignore this because it’s difficult to juggle your current workflow with training for the future — it’s going to happen whether you’re ready or not.

Insights Education is brought to you by Cuyahoga Community College