I’ve been writing a lot recently about the shortage of skilled workers in manufacturing; one point that comes up repeatedly is that the image of manufacturing hasn’t caught up to its reality. Much of this is due to “the plant.”
The plant is where America worked, where your old man trudged off to every day. The plant was associated with smokestacks, hard physical labor, an environment more hellish than high-tech, where workers battled with raw materials to forge goods for the nation.
For all intents and purposes, this place no longer exists. It’s back in a time and place where Pittsburgh was blackened by smoke, an environment long relegated to history. Yet “the plant” persists, deeply rooted in the American imagination.
A recent post by Rob Spiegel, senior editor at Design News, speaks nicely to how the plant has been transformed by technology. He provides a short list of technologies that have revamped the plant:
- The Industrial Internet of Things
- Smart sensors and valve controls
- Cloud-based services
- Big data diagnostics and prognostics
- Simulated automation design
- Advanced robotics
- Safety and control on the same Ethernet wire
- Bring-your-own-smart-device for HMI: iPhones and iPads
- Best-practice templates that can be deployed to multiple plants
Spiegel also brings up another important point: a generational shift has been underlying these changes, as Baby Boomers have given way to GenXers who are giving way to Millennials. Each of these subsequent generations is more at home in the digital age, the latter never having lived in a world that wasn’t digital. As they have moved to management, the plant has transformed accordingly. Notes Spiegel:
Now the Millennial engineers have entered the plant, and they think the automation and control system should run like a video game. The Boomers can’t argue; they’re walking out the door in retirement. The Millennials think plant technology should at least equal the jazz of their personal devices. And they’re getting their way.
They may be getting their way, but the longstanding idea of “the plant” is proving rather resilient, and has a direct impact on the general perception of manufacturing as a retrograde sector. The irony is that the opposite is true: manufacturing is on the leading edge of development, something that escapes the multitudes as they sip their lattes and tinker with their smartphones.
For many of them, manufacturing is something far-off in the distance, like China, and to think of it as something exciting is something they don’t entertain. How can we change this? I’m not sure. Transforming the plant with technology is one thing; transforming the image of “the plant” is quite another.