The Changing World of the Plant Engineer

Technology and an evolving global landscape have changed the plant floor

By Bob Vavra, Editor April 1, 2010

It’s a time of evolution and revolution in global manufacturing. There are economic, social, cultural and political issues affecting the way manufacturers work in today’s expanding, competitive landscape. For the plant manager, it comes down to one word:


In conjunction with IBM and Hannover Messe, Plant Engineering conducted a worldwide study about the challenges, issues and technologies impacting manufacturing today.

The results on the Changing World of the Plant Engineer study came from more than 1,300 plant engineers, plant managers and manufacturing and maintenance professionals worldwide. They work in every corner of the globe and deal with a wide range of social, political and economic issues. On the plant floor, however, their jobs are very much the same. They are charged with keeping their plant running efficiently, effectively, safely and productively.

Past studies conducted by Plant Engineering were focused on the U.S. market. This year, when we took the study into the field, we wanted to look at how those issues are seen worldwide.

One of this study’s most striking revelations is just how similar those jobs are. The job priorities, responsibilities and challenges don’t differ that much from region to region. There certainly is a greater understanding and appreciation for sustainable manufacturing established in Europe than in the U.S., for example, but it is an issue on everyone’s to-do list.

And while everyone was affected by the global economic downturn, how individual regions are responding to that crisis and are preparing to emerge from it is another of the study’s more fascinating results. The global market viewed the downturn as a time to regroup and retool. The U.S. market is less sure of its way going forward.

Yet as optimism grows and production continues to rebound, plant managers see their role expanding and growing both as it relates to new technology and automation, and as it relates to becoming a greater business partner in manufacturing’s rebound. There is little doubt that an experienced, skilled workforce is ready to lead that rebound.

Review the data from this study.

In challenging times, a new strategy is required

The study’s most startling numbers show in one area, little has changed from past studies. More than 60% of U.S. plants and more than 70% of international plants do not have a maintenance strategy in place. There is a wide range of attitudes about the recovery. More than half of the global manufacturers used the recession to upgrade equipment and training; one-third of U.S. manufacturers don’t see a recovery coming anytime soon. Everyone agrees, though, that the challenge for the immediate future of manufacturing will be producing more with less.

A new partner in IT and automation

Today’s plant managers see the importance of IT and automation growing each day. They also believe they should be a part of the discussion about what automation comes to the plant floor. Right now, that’s not happening, especially in the U.S. Plant managers aren’t being consulted on new asset management or EAM systems, and they want a bigger voice in those efforts, especially because they see a rapid increase in automation/IT spending coming in the next two years to address issues of a smaller workforce and a greater need to measure and manage energy and processes.

The role of the plant engineer keeps changing…

With a growing emphasis on environmental and sustainable manufacturing, a greater need for IT functions and a still-fragile global economy, plant managers say they have more challenges facing them in the next three years. By 2012, they see an increase in technology use, more outsourcing and a greater reliance on global teams. In all those areas, however, the international manufacturers see a greater emphasis than in the U.S. Everyone agrees on one issue: The role of the plant engineer will grow in the next three years as will these business and operational issues as the importance of this function receives greater visibility and respect around the world.

In their own words: What plant engineers said about their changing world

With more than 1,300 respondents from more than 40 countries, it’s not surprising that there would be a variety of issues on the current and future state of manufacturing.

In their own words, here are a few of the issues plant management personnel say they face:

On the economy:

“Collapse of the economy and our government’s failure to understand that no recovery is possible due to the manufacturing sector being moved offshore.”

On the issue of an aging workforce:

“When my experienced workers (knowledge base) retire in the next few years, will I be able to get skilled replacements in time to recover some of the institutional knowledge?”

On safety:

“How many more tasks must the remaining personnel perform before it causes health and safety issues in the workplace?”

On the plant budget:

“Because of the downturn in the economy, meeting cost targets is the biggest concern.”

“Where best to spend the limited budget so we don’t allow a major failure.”

On government regulations:

“The growing involvement by the government as they increase the rules and regulations a manufacturing company needs to comply with to stay in business.”

“Back off of some environmental standards and invest in domestic industries to make more modern and competitive with global entities. Focus on long-term gains vs. short term results.”

On technology investments:

“Invest in adequate resources including modern equipment (ours is ~50 years old in some areas), and staff appropriately. At the stage we are in, staffing levels are below safe minimums and our costs are going up instead of down.”

On the importance of retaining manufacturing jobs:

“There seems to be a movement against manufacturing in the U.S., going back to the ’80s idea of a service-based economy. Unless the general population realizes what happens when the manufacturing base is lost, then the same things that have happened in the rust belt town will happen to this nation.”

“Taxation and R&D spending policies by the Federal Government need to align with the goal of increasing manufacturing within the USA. Manufacturing drives the economic engine of the U.S. All other endeavors involve redistribution of wealth created by manufacturing.”