Oct 2nd 2017

For the Manufacturing Industry, a Golden Age of Skilled Work

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Factory work is being transformed as the manufacturing industry enters a new era of flexible and customized “smart” production. Once dominated by routine and repetition, the factory floor is becoming a more complex, fluid and interesting place.

As a result of this transformation, skilled production work is becoming more central to the manufacturing process than at any time since the dawn of the industrial era.

Moreover, this reskilling of the factory floor is multidimensional. It extends across a range of tasks and roles, from traditional skills such as machining to new tech-related skills such as working with computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) technology, to a set of aptitudes and habits of mind that are hard to pigeonhole in traditional slots but are instantly recognizable on the shop floor.

And with the new era of skilled production comes new challenges for firms in training their workforce to deploy new skills in a new environment.

Not So Dead After All

Even as much public discussion has focused on the woes of the manufacturing sector and of industrial workers, the reality of the manufacturing industry has been moving on.

Quality team members at Northrop Grumman perform final inspection of an AX-5 center fuselage before its delivery.
Quality team members at Northrop Grumman perform final inspection of an AX-5 center fuselage before its delivery.

By 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing employment is seeing a resurgence, with demand focused on skilled workers. Many unskilled production jobs had vanished, replaced by machines — but “people need to maintain or fix the machines. So manufacturers need fewer workers, but the workers they do need require higher level skills.”

The first, negative stage of this process is largely completed — meaning that the manufacturing industry is now focused on the second stage of finding (or training) skilled workers to “fix the machines.”

The Agile Factory Floor

This transformation is not happening in a vacuum, and to understand the new factory floor, you need to understand the new manufacturing. Kevin O’Marah at Industry Week characterizes this new manufacturing as shaped by consumerization and mass customization.

In a nutshell, customers — both individual consumers and business customers — are more demanding, insisting on manufactured products that are made to order, not standardized items of mass production. And this demand is supported by technologies, such as software-controlled manufacturing, that can respond rapidly to individual requirements.

Which means that “fixing the machines” is not simply repairing them if they break down, but reconfiguring them for a new production run or even to fabricate a single customized item.

And the Agile Production Worker

The new manufacturing continues to involve a great deal of “traditional” skilled work, so that machinists, for example, are much in demand. Alongside these skilled trades are a newer group, from working with CAM technology to maintaining robots.

But alongside these skill sets, familiar or more recent, the agile factory floor requires workers who can quickly shift tasks as needs change, and who have a sense of the big picture, so that they not only know what they are doing but why they are doing it. This is the skill that allows an experienced line worker, for example, to say that the setup for a new customized production job is wrong, and should be adjusted to avoid manufacturing errors.

Skill and judgment of this type, in particular, cannot be taught in a school environment, or fully taught even in an apprenticeship. It must be learned through shop experience, on the factory floor. And for this reason it is the most challenging component of training for the new manufacturing industry.

This training challenge has brought forth such efforts as the partnership of Northrop Grumman, California’s Antelope Valley College and other public and private agencies. As CA FWD reports, these participants have come together to build a training program for skilled aircraft production workers. (Northrop Grumman gets first dibs on recruiting program graduates, but other aerospace firms have also shown interest.)

Manufacturing is back, and innovative training programs are opening new paths to opportunities on the factory floor.

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