Maintaining the human machine

In the same way as you maintain your equipment, workers need updates on new strategies and technology. They need to operate efficiently. Above all, they must be part of a safe operation, and that safety must be ingrained in the production process.

By Bob Vavra February 17, 2015

Maintenance is critical to a productive manufacturing operation. You have to repair what’s broken, upgrade what’s new, and keep an eye on your operation for signs of wear and fatigue and lost productivity. Every manufacturing operation puts an emphasis on maintenance.

Training is maintenance for the human machine. In the same way as you maintain your equipment, workers need updates on new strategies and technology. They need to operate efficiently. Above all, they must be part of a safe operation, and that safety must be ingrained in the production process.

Yet in all of that, not every manufacturer puts the same premium on training as they do on maintenance. Whether driven by time, cost, or economic downturns, training hasn’t gotten as much attention in recent years. That trend, industry experts suggest, may be turning around.

“From what I’ve seen, we’re getting back on track,” said Brett Gallagher of National Technology Transfer (NTT), a Denver-based industrial training company. “A lot of businesses are seeing the value of training.”

“Business has been on the rebound for about the last 18 months, and our 2015 business is looking strong over the first three months,” said John Busselmeier of Denver-based American Trainco, which provides plant and maintenance training with a focus on boiler repair, HVAC, and electrical safety, including NFPA 70E. “We’re at an interesting point, because October is the start of the federal fiscal year and the federal government is our number-one aggregate customer. Now at the start of calendar year we’ve seen growth in private sector.”

While all aspects of training are important for manufacturers, there is one overriding area of emphasis. “From small mom-and-pop facilities to larger organizations, the biggest thing we see is an emphasis on the safety of workers,” Gallagher said. “If they are safer, they work more efficiently and they’re staying up to speed on codes and standards, making their work more efficient.”

“The value proposition is to increase safety performance and increase efficiency,” said Busselmeier. “A smarter workforce works safer and is more efficient. That allows the plant to work more efficiently. The death knell for a plant is downtime, so they’re looking at fixing problems, troubleshooting problems, and preventing problems.”

While many of the codes are updated and the technology improves, some of the training is simply to keep legacy technology up and running efficiently. “We see that most commonly in boiler world,” Busselmeier said. “People take it for granted; it’s 1920s technology that hasn’t changed much. But they are machines just like anything else, and with proper care, they can live for decades more to come. When you do training on proper boiler care, people can see the value.” 

The training process

While manufacturers re-evaluated the need for full-time, in-house training, the need for training didn’t go away. Third-party companies have both the native expertise in a wider variety of areas as well as the flexibility to shape training programs to the needs of individual manufacturers.

There generally are two types of programs offered by training companies: classroom education at the company headquarters, or remote training at the manufacturing site. Each has its advantages, but both have one advantage over e-learning programs: the ability to put the worker in front of a piece of equipment.

“They are hands-on with the trainer. They have the custom equipment and qualified instructors right there,” Gallagher said. “Digital and e-learning is going to be a trend. It’s going to grow, and we’re going to use it, but what we pride ourselves on is hands-on.”

“Instructor-led training is tremendously important,” Busselmeier said. “If you can supplement that with computer-based training, it makes student retention just that much better. To be able to use online training as ongoing refresher to something they may have learned something in January, that helps retention.”

Busselmeier said the real decision on training is getting the right number of people in front of the instructor for the training that’s needed. “It’s more about how the training is held,” he said. “Our number-one business is public seminars, where you have a conference space and anybody can sign up. That’s great for companies that only have one or two employees to train.

“If you have 10 people to be trained, it may be more economical to bring someone out to do the training on-site,” he said. “What doesn’t change is the delivery of the content.”

The trainer is the key

As in any educational process, the knowledge is the static part. Programming a PLC or maintaining a switchgear or developing a lubrication process has specific parameters, guidelines, and codes. The way that knowledge gets delivered is the key to the success of the training.

“It starts and ends with the instructor,” said Busselmeier. “From a student perspective, it’s important that the instructor is highly knowledgeable. None of our instructors come with theory only. We want folks who have been on front line. We know they have experience, but can they teach?”

Busselmeier said they also need to stay current. “They’re constantly hearing things from the students, and their breadth of knowledge is expanding,” he said.

The interaction between skilled instructors and skilled workers is another crucial aspect to the success of any training program, said Busselmeier. “When you’re in a classroom with a person who had been in the field for 30 years, a student is able to bounce ideas off them, and apply those to what they are seeing in the field.

“The ability to have a live interaction allows for more practical training,” he said. “It’s less important to teach the theory of why a substation works. It works; now here are some of things you need to be aware of. Here’s how to be safe.”

The continuing evolution of the National Electrical Code (NEC) and the specifics of NFPA 70E training around electrical safety and arc flash are two of the more visible training programs that combine both operational and safety issues. But all training programs are designed to keep the workers up to date and deliver greater productivity as a result.

“For the most part, when students come into these classes, they are there to learn,” said Gallagher. “They see the value.”

“We don’t have an issue of students buying into training,” Busselmeier said. “Usually students know they need it before company does. Customer expectations can vary. Some want some sort of certification test and some want continuing education. What they are looking for from us is to get hands-on training to learn new codes or even new techniques.”

Author Bio: Bob is the Content Manager for Plant Engineering.