Robin Miller: I am Robin Miller, ‘Roblimo’ to many of you. We are here today with
Chris LeBeau: I am Chris LeBeau, I am the director of information technologies for Advanced Technology Services.
Robin: And I hear that Advanced Technology Services spends its time and makes its money helping manufacturing organizations get into the 21st century – is this so?
Chris: It is true. We have a Four Walls Maintenance Program basically doing everything inside the four walls, basically providing manufacturing uptimes to service – right from keeping the machine running, which is the physical act of fixing it – how do we track how long it has been since its last maintenance activity? How do we track how many things it has produced, its wear rates, and all that. And that’s really where the systems come in. How do the technicians get visibility into the activity of the machines? How do we know the work that they have done, so we can track all the things that are supposed to be done in the machines have been done. And that’s basically the role of the systems. Basically the proof of all this work. And the visibility into the status of the plant.
Robin: So we are saying that modern manufacturing is no longer a dank place with giant hammers and sweating backed guys with no shirts, but now we have people walking around with handheld computers.
Chris: Yeah, basically guys have iPad devices or tablet devices where they are able to see all the work that’s been assigned to them, they are able to get all the information to do that work, whether it is looking up parts, or looking up procedures. They basically are completely autonomous out in the plant, without having to walk back and forth to the shop to get information that they used to have to walk back then to get.
Robin: Interesting. So you are saying they are more self-realized, self-managed than in the past.
Chris: Yeah, it is interesting. Everybody talks about mobile, and it is all about the connected worker, but these are guys we typically didn’t have the ability to communicate with directly, because they only used two or three computers, all of them shared. Now they got a device in their hands, that we can communicate with them, we can educate them, we can get feedback directly from them – we are basically connected to them in a way we weren’t before. So it is changing their experience as employees which is good too.
Robin: So these “thems,” in case a Slashdot reader is looking at this, and they are hearing about how manufacturing is coming back to the United States which apparently it is, that we are getting good at this, what kind of skills or training should they have to become one of these guys who is out on the factory floor with the handheld, keeping the place going – what do they need to know?
Chris: Well, I mean the traditional maintenance skills whether it is lubrication, or hydraulics, or presses, I mean all those same things apply. That’s what the machines still do. But some of the additional things that they will need to have are a little bit more computer literacy than they have had in the past. The iPads are really much more than electronic paperwork which is kind of how people look at it to begin with. But it is really much more than that – it is a tool.
There is a whole variety of things we can put on that tool. It isn’t just the applications that sit on the device for training, or for work orders, or to look up information on parts – we can actually connect things to the iPad via Bluetooth like vibration sensors, heat sensors, there is a whole variety of different things that will basically talk to the machines and then feed data into the iPad as a tool to help them better analyze what’s happening with the machines, and then trend and track all that, is part of it .
Robin: Okay. So how would you go about training for this?
Chris: Well, training, the iPad’s pretty intuitive.
Robin: No, I don’t mean for the iPad, but I mean for this work – is there a learning path?
Chris: Yes, there is. A lot of these plants have common equipment – CNC machines, programmable logic controllers, these things are common although they have different applications. So people that are skilled in working with those things, have the ability to translate that into a variety of different environments – hydraulics, all these things are sort of applicable inside the manufacturing environment.
But what’s interesting is the trend we see in manufacturing is with what they call ‘aging workforce’. A lot of the guys that built these machines that are unique to a particular operation, or that are special, those guys are retiring. So how do they transfer that knowledge and that information to the next generation of workers?
Part of it is the tools. If we are getting better information about how these things work, we have better maintenance history, we can trend and track stuff that’s custom to a particular manufacturing operation or common across multiple manufacturing operations, the new technicians that come in have that knowledge base and the information available to them. So that’s helping. We get a lot of people from the military as well.
Robin: I noticed that on your website, that you have a big pitch out there for veterans to come to work for you.
Chris: Yeah, I am a former army guy – satellite communications. If you think about the navy in particular, they are out on a ship, they have the machine shops, they have to keep everything running, they are completely autonomous. They have a very broad skillset that you don’t find in a lot of other industries with young guys like that. Like working in tanks, and just the industrial level stuff that the military has, and the environments in which they support it, those guys bring a lot to the table in terms of those skillsets and for them to come in with all that base knowledge and ability, it translates very well into the manufacturing environment.
Robin: I can see they would. I actually went right from the army into an instrumentation shop where I repaired, I calibrated and then after a year or so, I was doing more design, custom design of sensors, especially humidity and environmentals, that is what I did, and it was based on my army electronics training which was probably not that different from yours.
Chris: Yeah, when we looked at the practical application of what we are using on a day-to-day basis, when I hit the job force after the army, I had six solid years of practical experience which was well ahead of folks that had just been in college and were getting started. So it allowed me to learn faster. We see the same things with the guys we bring in. They are able to absorb more information faster, they are able to hit the ground running, they are able to make a much bigger impact quicker, and as a result the whole operation looks better.
Robin: Right, right. I remember that. “In the course of instruction this week, we will learn to” and if you don’t , “YOU over there! pay attention, drop and give me twenty”
Chris: Right. It is a little bit different learning model.
Robin: Yeah, but it gets you going, but aside from the jokes about military, don’t you often do a lot of training yourself?
Chris: We do, yeah. We try to get common processes, if we are doing the same thing, the same way in multiple places, the amount of information that we are getting from that, adds value to all of those places. So the fact that we are maintaining the same machine type across ten different customers means we have ten times the sample data to understand how those machines perform, what maintenance activities benefit them, what the maintenance schedule needs to be So that whole leveraged model seeing how these things work in a much broader environment than the individual plant where our folks is extremely helpful. And that’s really the role of the systems, it is to give us that information and that visibility.
Robin: That’s really interesting. You are saying, or I am interpreting you as saying that because you see the same machinery in different environments far more than the maintenance guys in any one plant, you know more about it. And you can fix it faster.
Chris: Exactly. And we have regional expertise. Whereas one plant may be small, you can’t justify having a high-end technician that can maybe do some of the more difficult repair activities, but if we have regional assets that can do that, they can be brought to bear as well.
Robin: So really what you are talking about is the same thing; when we hear outsourcing a lot of people interpret that as offshoring, and what you are talking about is outsourcing but it stays in Iowa, as it were.
Chris: Right. You are buying maybe four guys that work on your plant and walk around and maintain your machinery but behind those four guys is an entire organization that is doing similar work at plants all over the country or even the United Kingdom and Mexico. And all the information that those people gather is available to those four technicians – they have resources other than just the four of them to reach out to. So there is a significant depth there, and what you are gaining is you are gaining breadth of expertise, depth of talent, and resources that an individual plant couldn’t afford on their own but can have access to through an outsourced maintenance program.
Robin: So ‘cloud maintenance’?
Chris: Yeah, that’s effectively one way to look at it.
Robin: Yeah, that’s what you are doing. I think it is beautiful, it is a field that youngsters well aside, from going into the military, what should they do? Should they go to IT skills, college, junior college – are there good programs for maintenance?
Chris: There are. I mean there are a number of different vocational programs, a lot of colleges have programs for base skills, whether it is hydraulics, or electronics or any of the things that run these machines. If you think about the machines themselves and the programmable logic controllers, it is basically just a computer telling mechanical elements what to do. So there is a variety of different skills, and as these things become more and more computerized, those skills become more important. But just getting started, working in that environment, getting into a factory floor and starting to see how these things work, and touch them, and gain that experience is a huge part of it. It is not something that you can read about it, but you just have to go and find a way to do it.
Sub-Title: What about China? Could your expertise work there? Could you export your skills?
Chris: Production is based on low cost labor. When you talk about safety program, you talk about quality programs, you talk about metrics – anything that is volume oriented really doesn’t play well there. That’s really what they are all about –high volume, low cost ‘Keep it going’. We have done some work there, there were some projects to take a look at what we do would translate there. I think we are still looking at it.
Because again when it is really just based on low cost labor, what are the investments that they are willing to make to improve the operation from a quality, safety, and reliability perspective, if really what they are doing is all about low cost and volumes. So we are looking at it. China, South America are all key sectors for manufacturing, but we are also looking at things that are almost always local like consumer packaged goods, food – food production is almost always local.
So we have several customers that we’ve worked with in food production, and that is a space that we are looking at expanding significantly in - and what are the different maintenance requirements there? And there are some differences with materials. So for example, if you are making milk products, and you are bringing in milk from the dairy, it can only sit in the holding area for so long, if it is not used based on a breakdown, that spoils, and we got to send it out right down the drain. So the reliability requirements and the maintenance aspects of that in terms of availability becomes even more important. So food production is a big big market for us.
Robin: You know, the funny thing is, when we think about computers, we are just sort of starting to get the idea that they aren’t things on desks all the time, in fact, you know what, I wrote a series of articles about Stuxnet. It gave a lot of people that idea that ‘wait a minute, because I do IT, it does not mean I have to sit behind a desk and get fat. I can go out and do something physical’. And I like being physical. So this is a place I can be.
Chris: Computers are controlling real things that are mechanical and moving. And watching other things and creating parts. If you look at 3D printing basically you have a parts bin, and you basically have to have all those things in stock, that if something ever breaks down, you can go get it; 3D printing is going to change that, where you will basically buy licenses for products, and you will print them when you need them.
So there is going to be all kinds of new requirements around that technology, how that’s utilized and where it can go, and where it adds value. So all this computer application, it is really not the computer itself, it is what you can do with this technology in environments that didn’t previously exist. If you look at the connected machine, today people monitor computers and networked here for years and years, and all those things were really based around events.
Now there is a lot of focus on application performance. What is the experience people are having with these applications? How can we take a look at that, and measure that with metrics that indicate to you whether that’s good or bad. It is the same thing for machines. If you talk about vibration, in some of these things, is it a bearing, is it a shaft, whatever now you won’t know until it fails or goes off tolerance.
But if you are continually watching the vibration data off that machine, and based on your own predictive maintenance schedule you are able to tighten the tolerances on what you are looking for, you can get ahead of problems that before would shut down the plant for a couple of days. When you can say,“Look, I know I am going to have a problem in 48 hours, I can schedule downtime work around that loss of capacity, have no impact on production.”But the fact that you are able to watch these things, and set thresholds and get that real time information from the environment and trend it and track it, it changes the way that you operate and maintain that environment.
Robin: Then this offers a whole lot of opportunity for people with a good IT who love this stuff, who like this stuff, who like playing with computers, but also like playing with machines.
Chris: Yeah. This stuff’s cool, it is not about putting in an IT service that makes a banker more efficient. It is important that we do that, but here you are actually seeing a tangible result for the work that you are doing. You are putting in a system that helps something make something.