As executive director of the Manufacturing Growth Alliance, Jennifer Deamud helps connect small and medium-size manufacturers across Michigan with necessary resources to conquer challenges in the marketplace.
Lately she has noticed a recurring hurdle starting to disrupt operations and has these businesses turning to Industry 4.0 for answers.
“I can think of three manufacturers right now just over the past two weeks that have told me we are turning down orders or can’t fulfill orders because we don’t have the workforce, therefore we need to automate in order to accept and deliver on those orders,” Deamud said. “That’s been kind of the (thought) process: ‘We have sales and we have orders but we don’t have the workforce, so let’s automate and go down that path.’”
The inability to bring in new talent — or even summon workers back to the job who were previously laid off — is becoming a glaring problem in manufacturing both here in Michigan and throughout the country.
More than 400,000 people remain unemployed in Michigan where the unemployment rate contracted from double digits during the height of the pandemic and now sits at 8.7 percent.
This is all happening while manufacturing jobs remain widely available throughout the country. According to the July edition of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS), the U.S. saw 408,000 manufacturing job openings in July. Still, manufacturers were taking on workers at a slower pace, hiring 321,000 workers in July compared to 432,000 in June.
Chad Folkema, owner of Die-Matic Tool and Die Inc. in Wyoming, acknowledged that the industry is clearly short on talent, but his shop has been fortunate to sidestep the brunt of it.
“We have been able to find some talented die makers and designers — I think some other shops are slow or afraid to reopen and that has created some opportunity (for us),” he said. “I have had an ad running for quite some time looking for a qualified maintenance person, with no luck.”
Automating the problem away
Even if it only offers temporary relief for a long-lingering problem, some manufacturers are turning to automation and Industry 4.0 technology to fill in where human talent is lacking. Deamud said she has heard from a number of manufacturers interested in this route.
One manufacturer was having trouble finding workers to move production forward on its spray foam operation, she said. As a result, the company automated the process and instead of a person donning a full suit and respirator, team members could simply harness the technology. This one anecdote highlights the essence of Industry 4.0, which is to eliminate tasks that might be dull, repetitive, dirty or dangerous.
“For this manufacturer, they identified a specific pain point in the production cycle where they could bring in automation and alleviate that one pain point,” Deamud said.
In many instances, manufacturers do not immediately see a way to automate a process that was once executed and overseen by the skill and problem solving of humans.
Tom Kelly, executive director and CEO of Troy-based Industry 4.0 knowledge center Automation Alley, said any process can be automated if manufacturers look at the problem from a different angle.
“We try and teach small manufacturers that you have to look at the whole problem in a new way,” said Kelly, whose Automation Alley is a World Economic Forum Advanced Manufacturing Hub. “If I do something a little differently in how I assemble things, maybe I can automate other pieces of it which will allow me to do the assembly with the workers I have.”
For small and medium-size manufacturers, cost is the common barrier to Industry 4.0 technology. That argument, however, is beginning to lose its legs as technology evolves and becomes more affordable.
Industry consultants say cost is not the primary barrier, but rather a lack of technical knowledge and knowing how to best implement Industry 4.0.
“The small and mediums still view it as a rich man’s game,” Kelly said. “They’re not understanding that technology has gotten very, very inexpensive. You can get a collaborative robot these days for under $30,000 — that’s less than the cost of a person per year.”
Justine Burdette, who advises manufacturers in her role as the regional director for the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center-West, noted that manufacturers can choose to invest in and test out individual components of Industry 4.0 instead of overhauling their shop to create a smart factory right out of the gate.
“It’s definitely a buyer’s market, for sure,” Burdette said. “If you have spare cash laying around or you want to make a small investment and see how it changes the dynamics of (the) shop floor, now is still a great time to do that.”
And that investment can be made in a variety of ways.
“(That can mean) adding a cobot or piece of automation or starting down that big data journey,” Burdette said. “Pulling data from just two of your machines. What are you getting? Spend time with that data. Does it help you make better business decisions in any way? Now is a great time to take a small bite, sit with it, work with it, bring people in — even from your own ranks — and ask them.”