The churn of new technology is a challenge of time and resources in manufacturing
Modern manufacturing is a technology-driven enterprise. It’s simply not optional for manufacturers to keep abreast of technological changes pertinent to their industries. Those that do, thrive; those that don’t, struggle. It might be essential, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. To get an idea of what it takes to stay on top of new tech in an increasingly demanding and competitive sector, we spoke with several Minnesota-based manufacturing leaders:
Anja White, general manager, Sparton Corporation, contract designer and producer of medical and electromechanical components
Kim Blievernicht, HR business manager leader, RTI Remmele Engineering, manufacturer of specialized components for aerospace, defense, and other industries; part of Arconic.
Christine Lantinen, president and owner, Maud Borup, a confectioner that also makes spices and sauces, beverage mixes, baking kits, snack and breakfast items.
Anne Patterson, founder and CEO, Solavore, is a high-tech social enterprise aiming to bring sustainable, safe cooking to the developing world.
Darlene Miller, president and CEO, Permac Industries, a high-tech manufacturer.
How do you learn about new technology?
White: Several different ways. First, we receive updates from equipment vendors in newsletters, at trade shows and through other media. Second, our engineers keep their ears to the ground; industry associations are especially fruitful sources of information. Third, equipment manufacturers’ salesforces actively push updated equipment. Fourth, customers come to us with requests or suggestions for improvement, so we consult with equipment vendors, etc., to see if a solution exists.
Lantinen: We learn about new technology from our IT manager, shows like Pack Expo, other manufacturers, online research, and by talking with anyone from Generation Z — the iPad generation. Amazing what you can learn from an eight-year-old these days.
Patterson: We learn about new technology from our engineering support team, from our suppliers’ engineering teams, from professional organizations, and of course from the Internet: news, LinkedIn groups and the like.
Miller: Mainly from our sales representatives and tradeshows. The IMTS show [held in Chicago every year] displays every piece of equipment and tooling manufactured worldwide. I send a team of people to each show to review everything: equipment, tooling, quality measurement equipment and software.
What are the biggest challenges with new technology?
White: Costs rise well beyond the actual acquisition cost of new equipment. For instance, we recently spent $500,000 on a new piece of equipment that we then needed to train our engineers to use, which required additional investment.
Blievernicht: In my direct line of work, the biggest challenge of new technology is simply integrating it into the current HR system, which is necessary to drive business value, ease implementation, and improve efficiency and effectiveness for the team.
Lantinen: The biggest challenge is predicting industry trends in technology and investing in the right ones.
Miller: Finding the people talent to run this very high tech advanced equipment. We need the best and the brightest, as the technology used today to machine is not driven by manual labor — it’s driven by brainpower.
How does new technology influence hiring and personnel management?
White: We haven’t made any new hires as a direct result of technology investment. You make yourself vulnerable when you do that, so we try to avoid it. Plus, we want our existing employees to be highly trained and well-rounded.
Blievernicht: The upgrades to our manufacturing equipment have come in the form of replacing computer components to accommodate increasingly more complex parts. That challenges us to continue to upgrade computer proficiency and troubleshooting skills in our experienced machinists and programmers.
Lantinen: Technology has a direct impact on hiring decisions. If we purchase a piece of equipment that will cut labor costs, this affects jobs. We take this into consideration and continually think about who we are and who we want to be.
Patterson: Change management is a big issue when employees’ roles or jobs are impacted by new technology. Retraining may be required; even workforce realignment.
Miller: Our employees are excited to stay on the cutting edge, and we often pay for advanced training classes to update our workforce’s skills. They, in turn, are always excited to learn.
What are the advantages of new manufacturing technology and processes?
White: New technology is essential because equipment becomes obsolete over time. Eventually, it’s impossible to find replacement parts for worn-out components. We have a 20-year-old machine, a real workhorse, that’s perfectly functional — but in three to five years, we probably won’t be able to fix it. When eBay is your best source for replacement parts, it’s not worth it.
Blievernicht: The ultimate goal, and advantage, is greater profitability. The right technology increases work efficiency and productivity, with profitability following from that.
Lantinen: Improved technology and processes streamline production, cut labor costs, increase output capacity and reduce human error — all of which are great things.
Patterson: The ability to scale the business, improve product quality, and in some cases, leapfrog the competition.
Miller: New technology is faster, better able to handle shorter cycle times and far more accurate. It’s amazing how we can now easily hold tolerances down to the ten-thousandth — and on tough-to-machine materials with high nickel content, like titanium. We manufacture many aircraft and defense parts, so this ability is absolutely critical.
How do you decide to invest in new technology?
White: We’re up against 12 other facilities in our company, and the process for approving new investments is very formal, so we have to make the best case for why we need or deserve something. At smaller companies, especially those with just one facility, the process is more straightforward.
Blievernicht: Hiring additional machinists is a challenge in this competitive labor market. We prioritize investments in new technologies and processes that help us make the most of the programmers and machinists we already have.
Lantinen: We take our time doing research and wait to see which equipment and programs stand out. If we hear that three companies in the industry have made the move to a new technology, then it’s definitely something we should explore as a likely fit for us, too.
Patterson: ROI! There has to be a positive, bottom-line impact to implementing new technology, and the analysis must include the indirect costs such as workforce alignment.
Miller: We review our capital equipment yearly and ask manufacturers to do time studies for us to determine our ability to remain on the cutting edge. Our customers want to know they are getting quality products quickly, and at a very reasonable price.