Manufacturing: Educating Today's Workforce

Innovative training programs and techniques are preparing the future manufacturing workforce.

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Just about everyone complains about the sad state of affairs these days in education and training—that is, everyone except people like J.R. Gambill, in Virginia Beach, Va. This technical training specialist at Stihl Inc. can't complain, because his employer has already done something about the problem. The manufacturer of chain saws and other outdoor power equipment organized a small training team and its subject-matter experts to deliver a mix of courses that it offers to both its employees and surrounding businesses.

"We didn't have an option," explains Gambill. It had become much too difficult to find the training necessary for keeping pace with the relentless advances in technology. Like other companies that rely on technology to keep their competitive edges sharp in the global marketplace, Stihl needs its employees to continually acquire and master highly specialized skills. It, therefore, joined the ranks of manufacturers that are turning in increasing numbers to innovative blended training programs.

"When I started in 2005, most of our in-house training consisted of basic safety compliance programs," recalls Gambill. "We sent most technical people off-site for their training." Now, most receive their training as a blend of in-house and over-the-Internet courses. In addition to administering a four-year apprenticeship program for the machinists and maintenance technicians in crankshaft, piston and guide-bar manufacturing, Stihl offers 39 in-house courses on automation, machining and plastics molding technologies, as well as on business and leadership. The courses on technology occur in a training laboratory that the company outfitted with programmable logic controllers (PLCs), robots, electropneumatics and other equipment for hands-on instruction.

The blended training program relies on a mixture of in-house and outside experts. Three of Stihl's robotic engineers, for example, teach the robotics courses designed for workers in production. Besides giving them the relevant theory, the instructors work with the students on training robots from Fanuc Robotics America Corp., headquartered in Rochester Hills, Mich. To keep the engineers up to date, Gambill also brings in experts periodically from Fanuc and other suppliers.

When a machining supervisor told him in 2007 that he could not afford to pull people off the line, Gambill went looking for an online component that would supplement the offering. The search turned up Tooling University LLC, a Cleveland-based developer of more than 400 Web-based training courses in metalworking and other manufacturing technology.

The online program permits employees to log into courses from their home computers and pursue a course of study on their own time. It also provides an efficient way of delivering theory and preparing workers for the hands-on courses in the company's training lab. "Tooling U had exactly what we were looking for," says Gambill.

Because of the success of a pilot program involving a few machinists, Stihl obtained a full site license and now has 252 students enrolled company-wide in the program. "With just volunteers, our employees have taken more than 1,700 courses in this year alone," reports Gambill.

Metrics for management

Another strength of the program is that it provides administrators with metrics for measuring the effectiveness of the instruction and justifying the expense to management. These metrics are generated from a series of before and after tests. In Stihl's case, students have been averaging about 74 percent on the initial tests and more than 90 percent on their final tests.

These numbers, of course, include more than the courses taken by machinists. They also include assembly-line workers, for example, who want to learn quality assurance. In fact, one of these workers was diligent about taking all of the quality-assurance courses over the last year. When an opening in quality assurance occurred, his investment of time and effort paid a dividend. He got the job.

Manufacturing companies such as Stihl are not the only organizations recognizing the power of blended training programs. Suppliers and professional organizations are offering them, too. In fact, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), in Dearborn, Mich., announced in September that it would buy all of the outstanding shares of Tooling U. The organization has added the online company's more than 400 online courses to its current blend of certification products, in-person training and Webinars.

"Just as iPods have transformed the world of music, multimedia technology is creating an expectation that training be oriented to the needs of the business and of the individual consuming the knowledge," observes Jeannine Kunz, SME's director of professional development. "The big change in training is that companies are looking for flexible methods for consuming content."

SME, therefore, has invested in the technology for delivering it. In the past, operators of computer numerical control (CNC) machine tools, for example, would browse through Tooling U's library of courses and select the ones of interest. "We've grown this product by creating what we call competency models and assessments for specific jobs," says Kunz. "Based upon the way someone performs on the exam for a CNC operator, a customized learning plan is automatically generated for that person."

Although SME's assessments are normally done according to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards that SME also uses for its certification program, SME can customize the program further. Its consultants can perform task analyses for specific positions in a particular company and generate competency models for those jobs. They can then apply whatever standards the company wants to use for making the assessments.

"Some want standards that are nationally normed," notes Kunz, "but others want their own. In either case, we can give them how various plants in the company performed and how they compared to each other and the industry average."
Based on the results, Tooling U's learning management system can recommend courses in the company's in-person training program and supplement with SME's multimedia courses. "An employee's plan may say you need to take the following online courses to get the fundamentals before sitting for this one-week in-person training," says Kunz. Preparing people beforehand ensures that everyone begins at the same level, thereby not wasting the time of those who already know the fundamentals.

Classrooms, here to stay

The interest in blended learning has spurred more than professional associations such as SME to ally themselves with developers of Web-based training programs. Automation suppliers are making their own alliances to enhance their customer service without substantial increases in price. From its headquarters in Sugar Land, Texas, for example, Yokogawa Corp. of America announced in October a partnership with Praxis Technical Group Inc., an e-learning developer that has been generating technical courses from its offices in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada, for 25 years.

The first of these modular, self-paced courses covers Yokogawa's Centum VP control system. "Whether attendees are operators, engineers, technicians, or managers who need training on a Yokogawa product, e-learning is now available on their schedules as private tutoring sessions without any travel," says a Yokogawa spokesperson. Attendees anywhere in the world can access the demonstrations, do the interactive exercises, and participate in question-and-answer sessions.

As good as Web-based training is at delivering targeted information without travel, Yokogawa does not foresee this kind of training as replacing classroom training. One reason is that Web-based training lacks face-to-face interaction with the professor and other students. "You don't have the questions generated by other students to get you thinking and to get you to ask questions," says Platt Beltz, manager of Yokogawa's training department. Even with e-mail and streaming technology, a barrier still exists between the student and the professor, not to mention the rest of the class.

Another reason that he doubts that classroom training will ever go away is the need for hands-on practice under the guidance of an expert. "The reality is that the only way to get some real-world exposure is in a lab or on some sort of training simulator," explains Beltz. "A small simulator can ensure that an operator knows how to run some basic loops before working with an experienced operator on a real system in a mentoring program."

Although some companies invested millions in simulators in the past, the low-fidelity simulators that are on most controllers today can make this unnecessary. "Our controllers can run your process in what we call test function," says Beltz. The code runs on the hard drive to simulate that part of the process that the controller oversees. "It gets them a lot closer to the real world."

For this reason, face-to-face training continues to be the centerpiece of the blended training programs offered by many automation suppliers. ABB Inc., of Wickliffe, Ohio, for example, is building its program around what it calls ABB University, a training school consisting of 15 "campuses" in the United States and one in Mexico. Instructors at these training centers teach courses on engineering, programming and maintenance, as well as offer on-site training at ABB customers' plants. But like others, the university is adding a Web-based training program to reduce both the cost to customers and the time to train their workers.

Your personal trainer

Milwaukee-based supplier Rockwell Automation Inc. also does on-site training, but can package it with consulting services. "Because everybody has more challenges and less time available, we are being asked more to convey content in smaller, more targeted bites," notes Nick Goebel, global business manager for customer training at Rockwell Automation. Acting as a consultant, therefore, "we identify the gaps beforehand and teach only what you really need."

PepsiCo found this service to be quite effective at its new Gatorade Blue Ridge plant in Wytheville, Va. Packed with cutting-edge automation, this plant needed a highly skilled maintenance staff to keep its costs under control. In the end, the technicians had to be able not only to troubleshoot problems as they arose but also to suggest ways to improve the plant's efficiency over time.

Once Rockwell Automation was called in, its training consultants performed an Integrated Performance Assessment (IPA) to identify the skill levels and gaps. Based on their findings, they recommended that all maintenance technicians complete introductory and intermediate level training in the technologies that they were servicing. Afterward, plant management was to offer further training to a select group of technicians in integration, troubleshooting and programming.

Another recommendation was to embed one of Rockwell Automation's instructors at the plant for 65 days. "The daily interaction and weekly meetings to discuss performance changes, needs and concerns helped to accelerate the learning process and gave technicians an important confidence boost in their skills and abilities," says Warren Chandler, maintenance and reliability manager.

Not only did the instructor provide custom training to the maintenance technicians, but he also developed a course tailored to the facility and built a controls lab that contains workstations for training exercises. Technicians can come to the lab to practice their troubleshooting, maintenance and programming skills as part of a self-guided curriculum.

Because of the training provided by the instructor and the practice available in the lab, unplanned downtime has fallen, and the plant relies less on outside support services.

"Before we started the program, our controls engineer was getting three to five calls per week during third shift, requiring several hours of his time," notes Chandler. Now, those calls come only once every few weeks. So, he knows firsthand how educating the workforce today prepares it for tomorrow and its challenges.

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