Tackling the Training Challenge

Today’s time-constrained manufacturers are chasing a bigger bang for their training dollar, whether through vendor-provided training or internal training programs.

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The growing sophistication of automation systems and controls, combined with leaner staff sizes, increased productivity requirements and the shortage of skilled workers, is creating new training challenges for manufacturers. And for automation vendors—which have traditionally provided training support for their products—today’s market realities are forcing a different approach to training services.

“If you look at industrial training over the past four or five years, it’s dramatically changed, in the way that our customers go about training—in terms of location, the type of training they do and how much training they do,” says Kevin Ives, business manager for training services at Rockwell Automation Inc., the big Milwaukee-based automation controls vendor.

Ives traces the start of the change to the economic downturn early in the decade, which led many manufacturers to slash staff sizes. With manufacturing more recently in a growth period, Ives says, many manufacturers are now buying new automation products in an effort to boost output and become more efficient. This creates a need for training on those products. But with maintenance and engineering staff sizes in some cases at half or less of what they once were, customers are clamoring for vendor training services that are designed with that reality in mind.

“I think the best way to describe it is that organizations have less time,” says Ives. “They’re not willing to travel, necessarily, to a training course. It needs to be delivered on site. And they’re not willing to take a course that was typically three or four days long,” he adds. “So we need to find a way to get the same number of topics into a course—tailored specifically to that customer—and be able to do it in two days.”

With some 200 full-time instructors and help from an additional 500 field engineers, Rockwell delivers around 3,500 industrial training classes annually, and offers about 250 standard “catalog” courses, says Ives. Those courses are broken into about 1,600 modules based on specific job tasks, he adds.

For customers who may want to reduce the amount of time their people spend in training, Rockwell has an answer. The company recently developed a “tailored training tool” that enables end-users to pick and choose the job tasks or modules to be included in a particular course, says Ives. Once selections are made, the tool responds with the quantity of course time required for each job task module chosen, and any prerequisites required. “You can build a course and get immediate feedback on how long the course will be, and the topics that would be covered, and typically within a week, we can have the manuals printed and delivered, and have an instructor on site or in one of our classrooms delivering the training,” Ives says.

As another way to meet the needs of time-constrained industrial customers, Rockwell and other automation vendors have also lately been stepping up their computer-based and online training offerings. A number of new Web-based courses are available from Emerson Process Management, for example, the Austin, Texas-based process automation vendor.

“We’re really expanding our online program,” says Jim Siemers, manager, educational services, process systems and solutions, at Emerson. “We are rolling out an e-learning program that will include our new DeltaV [control system] operator training, and we’re doing some online safety system training that trains on some of the new IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission) standards.”

Emerson’s online offerings include a self-paced format—in which users rely on the Internet to access training material housed on an Emerson server—as well as a WebEx format, enabling customers to use the Web to interact directly with remote Emerson instructors.

In some cases, of course, online training can’t match the advantages of personal interaction and hands-on learning that trainees receive in a classroom situation. But Emerson customers are increasingly taking advantage of what Siemers calls “blended learning.” In this approach, trainees may receive their initial training on a control system in a classroom, and then receive training via the Internet when software or system upgrades are released.

“For someone who already has established skills, e-learning can be very cost-effective for moving them into the next hierarchy of software,” Siemers observes. “It’s a lot more effective than flying somebody into some location, or having our instructors travel and sending in equipment."

Roll-your-own training

Despite vendor efforts to better tailor their training to industrial customers’ needs, some manufacturing end-users are taking some training matters into their own hands. One example can be seen at The Hershey Co., the Hershey, Pa.-based chocolate and snack food manufacturer.

About three years ago, Hershey set out to develop internal training for its maintenance personnel that is geared to the specific needs of its people. The move was prompted by the fact that most vendor training courses include too much material that is irrelevant to Hershey maintenance technicians, says Marc Soucy, a Hershey senior staff engineer. “Our maintenance guys don’t get involved in design, for example, so we don’t need to teach them that. That’s a waste of their time and a waste of our time,” Soucy notes.

Hershey began the training development process by performing a job task analysis for the company’s electrical and mechanical technicians. The company brought in one or two technicians from each of 10 North American plants for a week-long assessment—which was performed with the aid of the Whitener Group Inc., an industry-oriented subsidiary of the nonprofit National Occupational Competency Testing Institute (NOCTI), based in Big Rapids, Mich.

The result was a comprehensive analysis that documented all of the job tasks typically required for Hershey maintenance personnel, as well as the skills required to perform those tasks, and the areas in which skills gaps existed, Soucy says. Using this information, Hershey was able to develop a series of six training courses on specific topics such as networking, servo motors and drives, and programmable logic controllers (PLCs), among others.

The courses developed range from one to five days in length, and are geared precisely to the needs of Hershey technicians, without the excess material often included in mass-market vendor training, Soucy says. In some cases, “you would have to go through three of their (vendor) classes to get the information we cover in one class,” he observes.

Further, because the Hershey courses are taught by Soucy and other Hershey engineers, they are also more cost effective than typical vendor-provided courses, he believes. Compared to vendor courses, which frequently cost around $500 per person per day, says Soucy, “we’re averaging probably less than $100 per day for our people to go through our training.”

Packaging excellence

As part of an effort to address a growing industrial skills shortage, Hershey is also participating locally with a consortium known informally as the South Central Pennsylvania Center of Excellence for Packaging Operations. The consortium includes local high school career centers, junior colleges, universities and various Pennsylvania state education, labor and economic development offices, says Keith Campbell, a Palmyra, Pa.-based consultant and former Hershey director of automation and integration, who is working with the group.

The consortium goal, according to Campbell, is “to improve technical education for the industry clusters that are important to our region.” Given the large concentration of food processing companies in South Central Pennsylvania, as well as growth in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, the need for “packaging related industrial maintenance skills” in the region is high, Campbell says.

To this end, the consortium is working to put appropriate curriculum in place, and to develop articulation agreements among the various educational institutions, so that credits earned at the high school career center level can be used at the junior college level, for example, and junior college credits can be applied at nearby four-year universities. As part of the effort, the Redding Area Community College, in Redding, Pa., will launch this fall a new two-year associates degree program in Mechatronics Engineering, according to Campbell. Credits earned in industrial maintenance at the career center level can be applied toward that program, he says.

The consortium initiative also envisions industrial training done by local employers using modules from the same curriculum as that used in the schools, Campbell points out. This means that workers attending training classes presented by their employer could also be earning credits toward a degree at a local school.

As part of its participation in the consortium activities, Hershey has agreed to open two seats in each of its home-grown training courses to instructors from the consortium schools, says Soucy. “We’ve had a hard time finding people with the skills that we need,” he notes. So by opening its training classes to local instructors, Soucy explains, “we’re trying to get them up to speed, so that they can understand the material and maybe start incorporating some of it into their own curriculums.”

Instructors from nine institutions have so far attended one or more Hershey training classes, and that exposure is already bearing fruit, according to Campbell. “We know that one of our junior colleges has offered some shop floor Ethernet as a result of it, and Penn State [University] has modified its advanced PLC curriculum based on input from the Hershey courses,” Campbell says.

While Hershey has developed its own maintenance training, other manufacturers are making good use of vendor-provided training. One example can be seen at a U.S. facility of another major food manufacturer. At this plant, the need for training soon became apparent after the plant began a major automation upgrade as part of a company-wide initiative in 2001, says a manager at the plant. Previous operations at the plant had been labor intensive, and the maintenance staff was not familiar with modern automation control systems. Because most of the new equipment used Rockwell’s Allen-Bradley controls, the plant turned to Rockwell for training and support.

As a first step, Rockwell compiled a database of Allen-Bradley controls and networking systems being installed at the plant, then did a survey of the workforce to determine the level and disposition of training required. Working with the plant’s personnel, Rockwell then developed a training program that could be delivered to the plant’s 25- to 30-person maintenance staff over the course of one year. Around 15 different courses were developed, running from two to five days each, with typical class sizes of six to eight people.

Because the plant needed to minimize the time that staff members were kept away from their regular duties, one key to the contract was that Rockwell provided the training on site, eliminating the need for travel, says the manager at the plant. Also key was a Rockwell support contract negotiated by the plant. “As this training happened over the course of a year, we also had 24/7 support, so when our people ran into a problem, they could pick up the phone and get a direct line to somebody from Rockwell who could walk them through the issue,” the manager relates.

Getting Comfortable

The plant’s goal for the training was to provide its maintenance staff with the skills needed to stand on its own with the new controls equipment. That goal was quickly met. The plant retained the Rockwell support contract for another 12 months after the training was complete. “But after year two, we no longer tied into that 24/7 support piece, because the training actually worked very well,” the manager explains. The plant’s maintenance personnel are now comfortable with working on the control equipment, and are typically able to quickly diagnose problems without outside support, he says.

Benefits of the training program are difficult to quantify directly, the manager says. But he notes that without the training, the plant would have required a continuing 24/7 support contract from Rockwell; instead, the plant can now apply that money toward other continuous improvement projects.

Further, thanks to the training, “the response times for our maintenance guys is very quick, in terms of their troubleshooting skills,” he points out. This means that downtime at the plant is “probably drastically reduced, because we can now stand alone. We don’t have to talk to somebody else, or wait for two hours for somebody to drive here to get us back up online.”

For more information, search keyword “training” at www.automationworld.com.

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