The Changing Role of the Plant Engineer

If the landscape of manufacturing is confusing to some, the man in charge of the plant floor can see clearly to the horizon. You can call that man plant engineer or plant manager or vice-president of manufacturing or any of a dozen other titles. The role of the plant engineer in an efficient, effective, safe and productive manufacturing process is undeniable.


If the landscape of manufacturing is confusing to some, the man in charge of the plant floor can see clearly to the horizon.

You can call that man plant engineer or plant manager or vice-president of manufacturing or any of a dozen other titles. The role of the plant engineer in an efficient, effective, safe and productive manufacturing process is undeniable.

The plant engineer is the person who takes the production process and the production staff through the maze of automation and consolidation, outsourcing and downsizing. His leadership role in manufacturing is unquestioned, and it is a role that has become more critical to the success of manufacturing as a function and as a business.

What was once a tactical role %%MDASSML%% fixing and maintaining equipment and riding herd over the production process %%MDASSML%% has evolved into a strategic role, with responsibilities toward a corporate bottom line and a collaborative approach to manufacturing that involves every aspect of the enterprise. They must be innovators.

Survey said

PLANT ENGINEERING ’s exclusive study, “The Changing Role of the Plant Engineer” discovered a plant manager who understands the challenges faced on both the plant floor and in the enterprise. The study, co-sponsored by IBM, asked PLANT ENGINEERING readers in plants of all sizes what they see as their challenges and opportunities in the coming three years. We benchmarked those results against past studies in the “Changing Role” series, and found that most of the predictions of the past have come true.

There were several key findings in the study:

  • The plant-floor leadership, by whatever title, plays a crucial business role in the specification and deployment of technology

  • That crucial role is growing

  • The greatest challenge these professionals face is the inability to replace a shrinking workforce with new talent, and a need for an infusion of capital and equipment to remain competitive in a global manufacturing landscape

  • Automation drives most plant floors, but not everyone is using it effectively. More education from suppliers is needed to drive more and better usage of automation

  • Energy efficiency and sustainability will be major issues in the next three years.

    • The study of nearly 800 readers reveals an educated, experienced workforce leading manufacturing. There were 77% of respondents with more than 10 years in manufacturing, and 50% had more than 20 years in the business. There are 44% who have earned bachelor’s degrees, and another 23% with advanced degrees.

      The plant engineer sees his role in IT-enabled assets growing in the coming years, and increasingly in a shared role with the IT department in the specification, deployment and maintenance of IT-enabled assets.

      The problem with the IT assets is that the plant manager does not believe the assets are being fully used to provide his staff or the enterprise level of the plant with the knowledge they could be getting. Only 37% of respondents say they are using IT-enabled assets effectively.

      Another crucial area for plant engineers is finding and training new staff to replace those workers nearing retirement age. The so-called 'skills gap’ in manufacturing appears as a chasm to most plant managers.

      While the two biggest challenges plant engineers say they will face in the coming years are budget restrictions and energy costs, the next three issues %%MDASSML%% all cited by more than 50% of respondents %%MDASSML%% are the recruitment, training and retention of skilled workers. The issue is especially acute in the automation area, where finding trained workers to operate automation assets is seen as the top issue, ahead of making a business case for automation or the functionality of the equipment.

      Despite the pages devoted to the topic in this magazine and elsewhere, maintenance remains a matter that needs more attention from all aspects of manufacturing. With the emphasis on productivity and the cost of new equipment, a maintenance program would seem to be a basic requirement of a modern manufacturing operation. Yet just 40% of plant engineers surveyed have a maintenance program in place. Another 34% have a program in development, and 26% have no program at all.

      This may be reflected in the way plant engineers view two of the newer software entries on the floor %%MDASSML%% enterprise asset management and service-oriented architecture. Just over half of plant engineers were involved in specifying or purchasing their EAM system, and less than half of those are satisfied with the results. Just 29% of engineers said their company was moving toward an SOA system, and two-thirds said SOA was not a requirement when purchasing software products.

      IT department60.7%
      Plant maintenance department59.4%

      Remain the same49.9%
      Plant maintenance’s role will increase38.8%
      Plant maintenance role will decrease11.3%

      To download a full copy of the survey, go to

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Annual Salary Survey

Before the calendar turned, 2016 already had the makings of a pivotal year for manufacturing, and for the world.

There were the big events for the year, including the United States as Partner Country at Hannover Messe in April and the 2016 International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago in September. There's also the matter of the U.S. presidential elections in November, which promise to shape policy in manufacturing for years to come.

But the year started with global economic turmoil, as a slowdown in Chinese manufacturing triggered a worldwide stock hiccup that sent values plummeting. The continued plunge in world oil prices has resulted in a slowdown in exploration and, by extension, the manufacture of exploration equipment.

Read more: 2015 Salary Survey

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