Disturbing Trends in Manufacturing

  • September 19, 2014
  • Feature

By Thomas Seubert, Contributing Author

Over the past two years (since the end of the recession), there have been some disturbing trends within manufacturing, specifically the automation/controls engineering profession. These trends have occurred mostly in North America, but evidence can be found globally. Some of these trends include:

  • All the “big box” manufacturers (GM, Chrysler, etc.) have eliminated their internal plant controls engineering departments and are outsourcing their control engineering project work.
  • Because of this, the amount of consecutive time spent by a Controls Engineer at the plant has significantly increased. It is now common for a Controls Engineer to spend 14 hours or more per day at a plant.
  • Many qualified individuals have left the Controls Engineering field. Does anyone remember the last time they saw a Controls Engineer in North America under the age of 40?
  • The number of young adults studying Controls Engineering/Mechatronics at the college/university level has decreased.
  • The number of internships and starting-position opportunities has decreased. This makes it more difficult for entry level people to break into this industry.
  • Manufacturers have not restarted technology migration investments since the recession. Too many plants are running obsolete hardware (i.e. Allen Bradley PLC-5). Replacement parts either cannot be purchased or are 5 times as expensive as they were 10 years ago.

So what is the overall effect of these trends?

Many of us have worked more than 18 hours consecutively at one point or another. This result should not be surprising. Automation/controls professionals have become frustrated with the way they are being treated. As a result, they are leaving the industry. Recruiters have stated that we are already in a Controls Engineer shortage. It will continue to get worse over the next few years as more Controls Engineers retire, and they will not be replaced by properly trained professionals. Since plants no longer have controls engineering teams, there are no programs for interns or starting engineers to obtain the experience they so desperately need. This will force that work to go to countries like Germany and India, where they continue to have these programs, and further weaken the North American and global controls engineering capabilities.

While most educational institutions do offer classes and programs in this area, and they are indeed trying their best to recruit people to study in this field, there are not enough people taking advantage of them. So it is not just an educational problem. The entire industry, globally, needs to take a hard look at how it treats its people - from when they begin their education until they leave the industry, hopefully at retirement age.

To counteract these trends, the following activities need to occur.

First, educational and manufacturing groups need to create programs that include internships and starting engineering positions within the actual manufacturing plant. Without this, the young people who have an interest in this field cannot break in or get the experience they so desperately need. Incentives may help create these programs.

Next, safeguards must be provided so that people are not stuck in a plant for more than 16 hours a day, no matter what. There are too many instances where Controls Engineers are stuck at a plant because they are either on a deadline to restart production or the production is down due to a controls issue and needs to be restarted as soon as possible. These long hours have become one of the main reasons why professionals leave this industry and why many others refuse to enter it. It is frustrating, demeaning, and unsafe. Personnel become so tired that they make simple mistakes. This is also occurring more and more as project work is outsourced, and these outsourced engineers are not unionized or protected by contracts. The easiest way to counteract this is industry must ensure that stipulations are placed into outsourcing contracts and require that a replacement engineer is provided after 16 hours, or another defined time period. Many people would argue that 16 hours is still too long.

Lastly, incentives must be provided to help manufacturers with technology migration projects. For example, an old PLC-5 system should be replaced with a ControlLogix system. Many plants struggle with lack of funding. This issue should be top of mind for operations managers at all manufacturing plants. Migrations to the latest technology are important because training classes are no longer available for the older solutions, making it more difficult to train a new engineer. Also, the solution providers are doing their best to make it difficult to support the old technology. Sometimes this comes in the form of high programming software fees or hardware that is either no longer available or too expensive to be purchased. Migration projects would create jobs that can be performed by interns or starting engineers.

This is not an exhaustive list of activities, and further thinking and debates are necessary to counteract these trends.

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About the Author

Thomas Seubert has 24 years of experience in Controls Engineering (he first learned the Allen Bradley PLC-2) and 17 years of experience in Manufacturing IT systems, both Manufacturing Execution (MES) and Manufacturing Operations Systems. Most of Tom’s controls experience is with Rockwell Automation, but he has worked on Siemens, Modicon, and Square D systems. Tom has done work for major automotive manufacturers, including GM, Chrysler, Ford, and others. Tom currently works as a MES Lead for Tata Technologies.

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