Tremendous Opportunities in Industry 4.0 for the Smart and Skilled
MANUFACTURING IN THE UNITED STATES HAS A CHALLENGE WITH ITS IMAGE. WHEN THE MANUFACTURING Institute surveyed Americans about manufacturing, a career in manufacturing ranked fifth out of seven possible industries. The dilemma for manufacturing is the general population still sees industry jobs as blue-collar when they are increasingly white-collar jobs with sizeable salaries requiring highly technical and specialized skills.
But the persisting misperceptions about industry jobs are contributing to a recruitment challenge for career and technical colleges and manufacturers alike. Some institutions are working hard to change that by upgrading their equipment, working closely with employers to realign curriculum, and introducing more project-based learning methodologies to the classroom.
The general public remains largely in the dark about the significant changes happening in manufacturing. While production innovations like 3-D printing are gaining visibility, transformations driven by computer-numeric programming machines, smart factories, and other parts of advanced manufacturing remain less accessible. What’s more, individuals without connections or exposure to manufacturing technology from an early age do not see how these innovations are redefining careers and the skills needed to obtain them.
All this is creating a significant challenge for workforce development in manufacturing. Right now, skilled trades are among the hardest jobs to fill in the United States.
By comparison, advanced manufacturing in Germany is a sought-after career,. Credit is widely given to the German dual-education or apprenticeship model, which pairs learning in a classroom with hands-on training in a company. Employers and educators collaborate to ensure students are learning the technical knowledge they need, as well as have the opportunities to practically apply their skills. This is something that many American career and technical education programs are replicating, while also making their own improvements to the system.
Employer Collaboration Starts With Listening
Moving from operation skills to programming skills is becoming more important in all aspects of manufacturing. The Manufacturing Institute reports that technology/computer skills are an area where employers see the largest skills gap: 70 percent say employees are deficient in these skills, while 69 percent say employees are deficient in problem-solving.
Andres Carrano, an associate professor in Industrial Systems and Engineering at Auburn University, welcomes the shift in employers’ expectations because it emphasizes the importance of an aspect of the manufacturing curriculum he feels is essential: the lab.
Carrano sees lab work as the best way to replicate the hands-on learning students need once they start working in a real-life manufacturing setting. “You retain knowledge more effectively over time once you apply it because students have that physical engagement through a manufacturing activity’ says Carrano.
His labs emphasize not only technical knowledge, which he is quick to point out important but also the soft skills employers seek like problem-solving and critical thinking. One lab Carrano includes in his undergraduate courses is a team-based assembly simulation. In this lab student teams of four or five-run an assembly line using the same type of equipment, they will find in future employers’ shops. They run the system for 20 minutes and then see where the bottlenecks happen, what the cycle time was, and where the system can improve. In other words, they watch what happens in real-time, and then discuss how they can make it better.
Carrano also assigns individual labs, including one he calls a “gate” or “check-out” exercise. This is typically the last activity of the lab and is designed to challenge students to apply the technical knowledge they have learned that day to the equipment they are using in a new scenario. Students’ problem-solving skills are put to the test because they cannot leave the lab until they complete the assignment and clear the “gate.”
These exercises, according to Carrano, are dependent on industrial-grade, high-quality equipment. “A critical differentiator in these lab experiences is the right equipment,” says Carrano. Though he also recognizes that having the funds to purchase that equipment can be a challenge.
Finding and Funding Industry-leading Equipment
At Wayne Community College in Goldsboro, North Carolina, the Applied Technologies Division overcame that challenge by persistently pursuing grant monies.
“If you have great intentions and good instructors, but you don’t have the equipment resources or you’re limited by space, it puts you in a difficult situation to effectively teach,” says Ernie White, division chair of applied technologies.
White and his team have actively searched and applied for grants to help cover nearly $1.7 million in equipment for students. That effort has paid off, according to White.
“In my 12 years of educational experience, this is the first time I can say we have state-of-the-art equipment that a lot of industry is trying to secure,” he says.
The equipment creates a “wow” factor for new students and helps with recruiting. But more importantly for the college, it engages students who might not otherwise complete their degree. Many students at Wayne are employed full-time, have families to care for, and are trying to take a full course load. They also often require some remedial education when they first enroll.
To support these high-risk students, Wayne instituted a flexible curriculum that incorporates many innovative strategies, like flipped classroom s and a series of certificates that students can earn while they work toward their associate in applied science. These innovations applied to a manufacturing curriculum help keep students motivated to actively participate in class activities and return the next semester. Wayne notes, however, that nothing replaces the hands-on learning they receive on top-level equipment.
The lab on campus boasts industrial robots, two 80-inch TVs, cameras that can be accessed remotely to view and control the lab, as well as equipment from leading manufacturing and automation providers. Having the cooperation of industry partners who understand the Importance of hands-on learning helped the college secure the needed equipment.
“It is essential that students learn on equipment that industry is using today,” says Mike Nager
one of Wayne Community College’s technical equipment providers. “Manufacturing is changing, which is changing the nature of jobs students will have, and having access to hands-on learning will help them effectively learn the skills they need.”
In terms of changing the face of manufacturing overall, Dostie notes it is a challenge, but she says schools should look to recruit students not traditionally associated with manufacturing.
“We’ve been trying to recruit women because these are great-paying jobs. The jobs today go beyond brute strength. To develop a program to operate a piece of equipment, you just need to be smart,” says Dostie.
The health of the manufacturing workforce and attracting new students to training programs might mean evaluating students’ interests and passions differently.
“Back in the day, you chose to engineer because you were a born tinkerer, good with a screwdriver while taking apart your toys or lawnmower — and you liked it. Today’s manufacturing is more focused on digital skills, so students without the previously necessary manual skills can still be passionate about and successful in manufacturing,” says Carrano.