At 60th anniversary celebration, study takes a look at the future

The history of PLANT ENGINEERING magazine was evident at a gala celebration Sept. 26 at National Manufacturing Week. The magazine marked its 60th anniversary at a cocktail event at the show in Rosemont. But the party also served to provide the first public presentation of the magazine’s study, “The Changing Role of the Plant Engineer.


The history of PLANT ENGINEERING magazine was evident at a gala celebration Sept. 26 at National Manufacturing Week. The magazine marked its 60th anniversary at a cocktail event at the show in Rosemont.

But the party also served to provide the first public presentation of the magazine’s study, “The Changing Role of the Plant Engineer.” The study, sponsored by IBM, allowed the magazine’s readers to offer their views on where manufacturing is in 2007, and more importantly, where it is headed.

The full details of the study will be published in the November issue of PLANT ENGINEERING , which is the 60th anniversary issue. Attendees at the party got to hear from industry experts Kevin Prouty of Motorola and Eric Luyer of IBM on the study’s results.

The two industry experts touched on the aging workforce and how IT is being integrated with operations on the plant floor. “These are two things that don’t seem connected, though they are, and I think this study points it out,” Prouty said.

As the existing workforce ages and its senior members have begun to retire, a gap in skills exists between the retirees and the younger workers coming up through the chain. It’s an extensive gap that is already forcing manufacturing companies to act to fill the hole in their skilled labor force.

“If you don’t have skilled people working in your plant, and you can’t develop them, what do you do?” Prouty asked. “You go hire a company to come do it for you, and it kind of becomes a cycle because the more you use outsourcing, the less you develop your own people.

“I think we’re in a cycle right now that, as you outsource more and more, you’re developing your own internal people less and less. And as your skilled people are going away, what are you doing? You’re leaning on outsourcing more and more,” he added.

“We saw three, four, five years ago, the shift, also in maturity, in companies where they use more departmentalized solutions based on globalization of companies,” Luyer said. “The need to include all different types of assets, not just production assets, and therefore introducing a lot more complexity into the role of the engineer.”

As the IT function becomes more deeply embedded in the everyday operations on the plant floor, the plant engineer’s job will continue to expand with responsibilities in that area. But the number one function of the role will remain unchanged.

“If you look at most plant managers, what’s their number one incentive? It is productivity,” Prouty said. “They’ll get involved with IT, but where the IT organization is doing something that will help productivity.”

Luyer said a major emphasis for IBM was in “raising awareness of the capabilities of what IT can do for plant managers and plant engineers. They have to automate specific business processes. They need automated systems in every department, so it’s difficult to convince the people, the men on the floor, about the benefits and just to show and to give the proof of the concept.”

Luyer added that continuing growth in manufacturing requires a collaborative approach %%MDASSML%% and not just within the plant. “Include the academic people as well to share their experiences from an academic point of view and also invite consultancy firms to bring their view to the table and try to understand where specific industries are heading,” he said.

The plant floor leadership also has a crucial role to play, said PLANT ENGINEERING editor Bob Vavra, who moderated the discussion. “You have to involve the plant manager; you have to involve the plant engineer when you put IT on the floor,” Vavra said. “The plant engineer has become a business partner in manufacturing. They’re not simply in a functionary role. They are integral to putting IT on the plant floor, and they are integral to making sure it is set up effectively and is monitored effectively.”

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