Needed: A Guitar Hero for the plant floor

The curriculum needs to change if we really want to make manufacturing attractive again. This goes beyond reinforcing business school curriculums or increasing the amount of engineering students. It must start at a grass-roots level with our youth.


While Boston was being pummeled with snow earlier this year, some colleagues and I escaped to Midland, MI, to visit clients. We arrived in the cold darkness of a Sunday night. Hotel management had to plead with a local restaurant to stay open so that we could get a late dinner. The pleading worked.

Our waitress, recognizing we weren’t locals, brought us up to speed on the happenings of Midland. The town’s two biggest employers, Dow Chemical and Dow Corning, had idled capacity, which translated into contract buyouts and increased unemployment rates. These challenges weren’t dissimilar from the struggles any other town built on manufacturing must cope with, and it got me thinking: When the economy improves, where will our next generation of manufacturing workers come from, and how will we train them?

Skills: A dwindling life

The good old days are long gone, and the factory workforce as we know it is changing. Between May 2008 and May 2009, unemployment in the manufacturing sector increased 7.3%. According to the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry alone has lost 32,700 jobs, or roughly 3.8%, of its workforce since the recession started in December 2007.

More recently, Chrysler’s idling of its U.S. manufacturing facilities affected 39,000 employees in more than 20 plants. In March 2009, Caterpillar sliced 25,000 jobs, while United Technologies eliminated 11,600 employees worldwide.

The steady migration of less-skilled manufacturing positions overseas and the increased streamlining (or “leaning out”) of onshore manufacturing operations now require, in some cases, fewer, more highly trained people to run plants. And for the skilled workers that remain, the Baby Boomer brain drain is hyper-accelerated, with idled capacity and plant closures pushing many toward early retirement or career changes for survival’s sake.

Compounding the acceleration of skills depletion is a perception of manufacturing as a career choice. Unfortunately, manufacturing jobs don’t carry the same appeal and respect they’ve previously had or should. U.S. News and World Report’s “30 Best Careers for 2009” identifies professions such as fundraiser, ghostwriter and biomedical equipment technician as en vogue %%MDASSML%% not exactly roles specific to manufacturing or the supply chain.

The 287 respondents to our most recent supply chain talent study indicated that manufacturing and engineering skills carry high importance as part of their supply chain organizations, and competencies are at a premium. A truly synchronized and integrated product supply organization needs to include and cultivate skills and responsibilities for manufacturing and new product development and launch (NPDL).

Companies like Procter & Gamble and Boeing are looking to assuage the dearth of sufficiently available skills. In fact, Boeing has teamed with non-profit firm FIRST, which develops programs for cultivating skills and motivating the pursuit of careers in science, technology and engineering.

The future is coming fast

The curriculum needs to change if we really want to make manufacturing attractive again. This goes beyond reinforcing business school curriculums or increasing the amount of engineering students. It must start at a grass-roots level with our youth, who learn and communicate much differently than their parents and have a higher reliance on technology.

For example, my nine-year-old nephew Joe is both a wiz at first-person video games and a natural like Jimi Hendrix at Guitar Hero. Perhaps in the future, interactive experiences, much like video games, will be designed for building new skills for manufacturing. Imagine a game where avatars were tasked with designing and launching new products or maintaining multiple assets on a pipeline or offshore rig. It turns out that the future might not be so far off.

During its last earnings call, Invensys executives discussed using 3D gaming technology for modeling and analysis. Using virtual reality and visualization, the company has already constructed an operator training simulation capability to accelerate learning and skills development. Invensys is in the process of setting up a pilot program and will provide more information later this year.

Perhaps it will be approaches like this %%MDASSML%% binding simulation, games and other delivery methods %%MDASSML%% that will ultimately increase the capacity to learn, but also build in flexibility and passion that will make local production economically viable again.

Moreover, the criticality of aligning technology with organizational structure cannot be overlooked or understated, especially when the next generation brings significant technological savvy. They will also command a workplace that supports this zeal and fosters ongoing learning and knowledge development.

Manufacturing 2.0 can set you free

Our call to arms also solicited creative solutions that would bring Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 approaches together to foster interdepartmental collaboration, knowledge transfer and relevant decision making. These approaches provide a strong foundation for managing the transition of outgoing workers while empowering the new ones to keep pace with the pressures of demand-driven manufacturing.

Collective intelligence and tribal information can be harnessed in blogs, wikis and other social media. They’d be enabled by enterprise search and discovery tools and combined with unified communications technologies that connect workers and information together, either within the firewall or from the cloud, to increase efficiencies and reduce risk.

Imagine being able to perform root-cause analysis on a quality spill by instant messaging with a colleague at a similar facility, or being able to guide a new employee through a cleanout from a remote location. Well, these sorts of Manufacturing 2.0 approaches that set free the manufacturing worker are taking root.

Driving the payoff

The weather has warmed up since this winter’s excursion to Michigan. Economic activity will soon heat up, and when it does, manufacturing will undoubtedly be different. Right now, leading manufacturers are using the downturn to re-evaluate their product supply strategies to reduce costs while increasing efficiencies and process automation between individual plants and the supply chain.

Regardless of strategy and automation, skilled workers will still be the linchpin. Companies need to align their scarce manufacturing talent across the product supply network to achieve their new performance objectives. Manufacturing 2.0 approaches can drive payoffs of near instantaneous communication and collaboration.

What do you think the complexion of the manufacturing workforce of the future will look like? I welcome your thoughts at .

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