A CNC operator working with a collaborative robot needs a different skillset than an operator working alone. The same is true for someone working in an assembly cell. And as companies continue to add more connected devices to their shop floors, the IT professionals responsible for maintaining office computers suddenly need another level of expertise.
A partnership between Milwaukee-based staffing and workforce solutions firm ManpowerGroup and the Chicago-based Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute has identified 100 different roles in manufacturing that will be created or transformed by the introduction of digital technology in the industry.
The challenge the partnership hopes to address is how to prepare the workforce and businesses large and small for the transformation new technology will introduce.
“I think this is a huge inflection point for the U.S.,” said Rebekah Kowalski, vice president of sales enablement and solution integration at ManpowerGroup’s Right Management. “If we don’t take the time now to figure out the roles that are needed, we won’t be able to make the most of the digital manufacturing technology that’s being produced.”
In the same way digital technology disrupted music, media and a host of other industries, experts expect the same to happen in manufacturing.
“This is a tidal wave and we’re all just on it,” said Haley Stevens, director of workforce development and manufacturing engagement at The UI Labs Innovation Center, which houses DMDII.
The institute is one of nine established as part of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation and is funded, in part, by $70 million from the U.S. Department of Defense.
What separates digital manufacturing from the increasing use of technology and automation in the industry alone is the ability to connect different parts of the manufacturing lifecycle and use that information to make better decisions.
Mike Fornasiero, an employee at GE Global Research and an American Society of Mechanical Engineers fellow on loan to DMDII, said digital manufacturing includes a wide spectrum of both hardware and software technologies. It stretches from the individual machine level to factory-wide applications and those that stretch throughout the supply chain.
DMDII has funded projects that look at incorporating augmented reality devices, real-time data-driven decision-making and automating the handling of variations in materials by machine tools.
Fornasiero said the pace of change in technologies like robotics, controls, design and simulation has increased so much over the past 10 to 20 years that other countries previously known for low-cost labor have an opportunity to take advantage as well. Fornasiero pointed to Foxconn, the Taiwanese firm that produces Apple products, among other things, deciding to lay off thousands of employees in China in favor of robots.
“We’re in almost a productivity race with other countries around the world,” he said.
To be sure, there are already companies taking advantage of the available technologies. But Fornasiero said it isn’t just about large automotive companies, General Electric, Lockheed Martin, Caterpillar Inc. or John Deere applying the technology. He said the value comes from integrating technology into the supply chain.
While larger companies might have the resources to dedicate time, energy and funding to research and development, small and medium manufacturers might be more concerned with meeting daily demands and getting the next order out the door.
The cost and technical knowledge required for new machines may also present a barrier to entry for smaller or specialized firms, Kowalski said.
“Part of this is building awareness and then adoption and then making sure the workforce is there,” she said of the partnership between 0ManpowerGroup and DMDII.
Stevens said part of the institute’s work is focused on developing assessments for small and medium manufacturers to determine their technology needs.
“Their OEM customers are going to start to push for digital technologies,” she said.
While the decisions to invest in new technology ultimately come down to the return on investment, Fornasiero said there is an opportunity for digital manufacturing to break down silos, even in small companies. That means design teams working better with the production floor and improved communication with sales and supply teams.
The ManpowerGroup-DMDII partnership is intended to draw on the former’s understanding of labor markets and company needs at a granular level.
The idea is to avoid making a lack of available workforce a challenge to applying digital technologies.
“If there is no developed workforce, you’ve doubled the barrier to entry,” Kowalski said.
Manpower and DMDII plan to release a report in early 2017 detailing formal job profiles for positions emerging from digital manufacturing.
Stevens said a number of drivers are seen as key to those positions, including a greater emphasis on teams, more data analytics, automation at the individual and factory level, and data connectivity.
As with any major technical shift, digital manufacturing will see people initially tinkering with some of the technology, followed by wider deployment, Fornasiero said. That will be followed by changes in education and development of enhanced tools and more training.
The idea behind the partnership is to bring everyone in the industry along, Kowalski said.
“We are really looking at the future in a new way,” she said. “We should not (and) do not need to leave individuals behind in this.”