Time to spend on our ‘other’ aging asset

The 2017 Salary Survey identified lack of workers as the primary issue facing the manufacturing industry, but aging equipment and technology should not be ignored.

By Bob Vavra February 28, 2018

The 2017 Plant Engineering Salary Survey makes clear—again—the top issue facing manufacturing as we head into another new year. The issue is workers, or the lack of them.

We don’t have enough workers to meet the needs of manufacturing today, and we don’t have the right skills to take on the manufacturing challenges of tomorrow. As we create a digitally interconnected plant driven by data and analytics, we need workers ready to take on the challenges of the digital plant. This is uncontroverted fact, and it could well be enough to bring U.S. manufacturing’s spectacular decade of growth to a screeching halt.

But that’s not what I want to talk about right now.

We have discussed our aging manufacturing workforce at length, but our other aging asset—our equipment—is at equal risk of quitting on us very soon. Too many plants have limped along underfunded and under-maintained for so long that it has become business as usual. We have just accepted that capital investment is something that has to wait for another day. That’s ironic, because with manufacturing’s growth trajectory, the capital has been accumulated to build a better plant infrastructure.

Combine strong capital growth with a business-favorable tax law, and it would seem 2018 would be a prime year to invest in new equipment, new processes, and new technology. Many suppliers we speak with on a regular basis agree that this could be that big breakout year for reinvestment in manufacturing’s infrastructure.

Those are macro-economic discussions, though. They look at the global landscape of manufacturing, the increased right-shoring of manufacturing operations, to locate manufacturing closer to an expanding, worldwide consumer market, and to the rapid Amazonization of our planet. All of this change will require not just a different strategy, but also new equipment, and a lot of it.

We’ve seen an explosion of sensors, software, and data centers all designed to build a cloud computing network that will deliver on the promise of the Industrial Internet of Things. These connected devices are changing the way we view maintenance, the way we manage assets, and the supply chain that feeds our operations.

Behind all those sensors are motors and drives, compressed air systems, control networks, electrical infrastructure, and mechanical operations. Those systems have gone overlooked in recent years as we tried to dig ourselves out of a deep hole in manufacturing. I think it’s time to recognize we’re out of the hole.

The opportunity to invest should be taken seriously. It’s not a good idea to rip-and-replace just so we can have shiny new equipment. That’s not what infrastructure investment should do. But the time to invest in your home is when you have both the capital available and a need to make sure you can operate your environment more efficiently to save time, money, and effort.

For too long in manufacturing, the cost to repair was greater than the cost to replace, but the operating cost was coming out of one budget and the capital budget was constrained. As a result, manufacturers were told to just ‘get by’ with what they had. It’s now time to turn that discussion around.

In manufacturing’s future, I see an agile workforce with cutting-edge technology pulling more productivity out of operations. I see manufacturing attracting a new breed of workers who will be intrigued by that technology and the allure of creating with the mind as well as the hands. This future is possible today, and it will be owned by the manufacturers ready to invest in the future rather than guarding against the pressures of the present.

Manufacturing has waited for this opportunity. We have been patient. We have grown and succeeded despite the economic and political shackles. The constraints are gone.

Let’s go.

Bob Vavra is Content Manager for Plant Engineering at CFE Media.