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Video Outsourced Manufacturing Plant Maintenance Creates IT Opportunities (Video) 67

American manufacturing plants are no longer necessarily dank, dirty places where large men without shirts sweat until they drop. Rather, most plants today are full of computer-driven machinery that takes strong skills to install and maintain. And since many manufacturers, especially small ones, can't afford to have high level IT and repair people on staff, their maintenance work is often outsourced. Obviously, this doesn't mean outsourcing to a company in China or India (that's offshoring), but to one right here in the USA. Today's interviewee, Chris LeBeau, is director of information technologies for Advanced Technology Services, which is one of many companies that have sprung up to help factories operate efficiently in a highly computerized world. Most of their techs have wrench-turning skills, but more and more, they also have strong IT skills and walk around carrying tablet computers. So what you have here is a whole set of IT-related careers for people who enjoy working with computers but would rather stay physical and move around than spend all day in front of a monitor at a desk. Chris's comments about why IT-based factory maintenance is more usful here than in China are interesting, too -- and may offer a clue as to why some types of industry are bringing their manufacturing operations back to the U.S. from low-wage countries in order to increase efficiency.

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.

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Outsourced Manufacturing Plant Maintenance Creates IT Opportunities (Video)

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  • Seriously, many people left the family farm during industrialization to work in manufacturing plants just to avoid working having to be in the sun for 16/hours a day.

    Still, technology that improves working conditions is generally a good thing all around.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Some manufacturing may be returning to the US but not the jobs or rather fewer, different jobs. A job that took 100 people in China is being replaced in the US by 10 machines and one engineer. Those labor intensive middle class manufacturing jobs are gone and are never coming back.

    • by Skapare ( 16644 )

      Eventually, almost all jobs will be gone. Then who will the one percenters sell their products to?

      • by ranton ( 36917 )

        Eventually, almost all jobs will be gone. Then who will the one percenters sell their products to?

        Why do people think that businesses need middle class families to have someone to buy goods? I personally blame the myth of Henry Ford raising salaries so his employees could buy cars (hint: it was just to reduce turnover). The truth is that as long as the total amount of money in the economy is increasing, that alone will improve business opportunities regardless of the level of income disparity. Income disparity only becomes a problem for the rich when they are unable to find enough skilled labor (like i

        • Why do people think that businesses need middle class families to have someone to buy goods?

          Because historically it's true. Your argument that income distribution doesn't matter ignores important realities. Wealthy people consume a lower percentage of their income than others. Great, you say, then they can invest more! Invest in what? Productive investments like factories, improved technology, etc. aren't worthwhile unless you have enough customers. Not only do the rich spend less of their income, but they don't care much about price. They often buy expensive "craft made" goods that don't benefit

          • by ranton ( 36917 )

            Why do people think that businesses need middle class families to have someone to buy goods?

            Because historically it's true.

            Historically the middle class is an aberration of the past 100 years, so we have very little information about how the middle class can endure changes in the economy. It is very likely that the middle class is simply a stop-gap to solve the problem of wealthy industrialists needing a large educated workforce. The current trend (although so far a shortly lived trend) is that our economy needs an ever decreasing number of incredibly well educated workers. This is one reason why the upper middle class, somethi

      • Remember your Fountainhead:

        Once all the "Takers" are gone, then the "Producers" can frolic in unabashed glory in their new utopia as their products are no longer taken (or consumed) by people who want them.

        And THEN the Morlocks will kill and eat all the Eloi.

    • Those labor intensive middle class manufacturing jobs started disappearing when they started using automated spinning and weaving in the late 18th century, although the middle class agricultural work started disappearing in the 17th century with the agricultural revolution.

      • True. So the next generation of workers simply has to avoid doing the labor intensive work, and instead learn the things that are in demand, like actually maintaining the equipment that does all that production. If enough people do it, or get the skills to, the US could become more attractive for manufacturing once again.
        • by Anonymous Coward

          If enough people do it, or get the skills to, the US could become more attractive for manufacturing once again.

          Pursuing skills that are "in demand" is just falling for a shell game. By the time you acquire those skills, the market will be flooded by other people doing the same and you will be stuck with the latest job to become low paying. Increasingly, you will also be stuck with the crushing debt required to obtain said skills, and thus be even further compelled to take whatever crumbs are scattered at your feet.

          BTW, what makes the US unattractive for manufacturing is its relatively high standard of living. Gre

  • The good being that they do care and at least try to keep the same people on the same sites.

    Bad is overloaded with temps, subs, roaming staff that can change all the time, and more.

    • More seriously I'm glad that the above story draws the difference b/w 'outsourcing' and 'offshoring'. Unfortunately, LinkedIn conflates the 2, but as the above summary points out, they are very different. Outsourcing simply means that work that is not central to the company's line of business, but needs to be done, is handed over to another company, rather than have an in-house department in the company run it. Like having Administaff run all the Admin needs of an organization, since most companies are n
  • jobs restored...? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by themushroom ( 197365 ) on Thursday September 05, 2013 @03:40PM (#44768223) Homepage

    So what you're saying is: American plants gain 5 IT workers because computers/robots are doing the work, but still have not gained back the hundreds of human workers laid off when the plants shipped their labor overseas.

  • "American manufacturing plants are no longer necessarily dank, dirty places where large men without shirts sweat until they drop."

    Really did anyone believe this?

  • by schematix ( 533634 ) on Thursday September 05, 2013 @03:47PM (#44768257) Homepage
    American laborers can't compete with labor from China, India, Vietnam, etc. The only way for American manufacturers to keep their doors open at all is to replace unskilled laborers with automated machinery. If they didn't do that then all of the jobs (including the higher end jobs) would be gone. This has greatly reduced the need for unskilled labor and greatly increases demand for people who can design and maintain this type of equipment. Fortunately my job is to program these types of machines, integrate different machine into production lines, and design the underlying infrastructure that supports them. So far it's been a fun unintentional career path.
    • by Skapare ( 16644 )

      They can compete if the US gets hit by a massive depression that makes the dollar virtually worthless. Then $50/hr is enough to buy a half slice of bread each day.

      • by jbengt ( 874751 )
        Massive depressions don't make dollars worthless, massive depressions make labor worthless.
    • unlink healthcare from jobs and then we can compete or at least do better vs others.

    • by geekoid ( 135745 )

      They can compete if the put big tariffs on countries that don't have at least our federal minimum wage and safety.

      Hell, there are slowly loosing the outsourcing edge due to increased energy prices anyways.

      Don't be fooled, even in all the labor was local, they would still replace it with machines.
      They are more reliable and substantial cheaper.

    • Someone has to make those high tech machines as you say. There is your added jobs. Not only that but someone has to market and sell the machines as well. Lets not forget the big data aspect as those machines will generate lots of it. It's a new industrial revolution.

    • That has more to do with how lazy and complacent most Americans are.

      In the southwest US, particularly the hotter regions, it can be hard as hell to find anybody to do unskilled hard labor (e.g. trenching) because nobody wants to do it. However first or second generation Mexicans (especially illegals) are almost always willing to do it. I'm not trying to bait or troll here, it's just a fact.

      Most Americans have this stupid attitude that some kinds of jobs are just somehow below them. I remember watching a doc

      • Most Americans have this stupid attitude that some kinds of jobs are just somehow below them.

        What does that have to do with this post, which is about jobs manufacturing jobs becoming higher level? If you're looking for an excuse to spout your agenda, at least find a post that's relevant.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        it can be hard as hell to find anybody to do unskilled hard labor

        for minimum wage and zero benefits

        TFTFY. There's no such thing as a labor shortage. Offer a million dollars an hour and a guaranteed 1,000 hour work year and you'll have hundreds of qualified applicants even in esoteric PhD fields, much less ditch digging. Hell, offer me $10k/week for 12 weeks and cover an AC'ed hotel next door and I'd do it for summer.

        Or did you think people want to do hard physical labor in blistering heat without water when they can get paid the same flipping burgers or greeting peopl

      • by Desler ( 1608317 )

        However first or second generation Mexicans (especially illegals) are almost always willing to do it.

        That's because they are desperate and often don't realize how much they are being exploited.

    • Yeap,
      That's why they manufacture BMW's in South Carolina and BMW has expanded the plant and hired more workers over the years. Last time I took a tour of the facility, they were making all the X3's, X5's, and X6's for the world market, including the ones being sold in Asia.

      Yeap, we can't compete with anyone.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I am an engineer at a fairly modern furniture plant.

    ATS hires desperate displaced maintenance workers who have acquired years of PLC and high-speed machine skills, and works them like temps at temp wages. Their lack of "ownership", i.e. giving a damn about the plant, unfamiliarity, and constant turnover lead to much higher downtime. No one blames the workers for moving on to greener pastures at the first chance.

    I defy you to find one non-managerial ATS technician who has been with them for more than two y

  • Around 2000, I was in an auto parts plant.

    There was literally a line on the floor ... on one side could have been a scene from the 1950s (or maybe even the 1930s): everything was dirty, crowded, dense with machinery and workers who looked pretty much as Roblimo described.

    On the other side of the line, everything was new, clean, the machines were spaced farther apart, and there were eerily few workers, just a few techs calmly standing at control panels tweaking or monitoring things.

    I never did find out what

  • by erroneus ( 253617 ) on Thursday September 05, 2013 @04:18PM (#44768549) Homepage

    The idea that "sure, robotics put dozens of people out of work, but robots need technicians to maintain them" is absurd. Not that machines don't need maintenance, but that the number of people displaced approaches the number of people needed to maintain machines. And even if that WERE the case (which is most certainly isn't) then surely we have to face that most people should realize that being a tech isn't something everyone can do effectively. This leaves people who are not technically inclined and not lucky enough to be trained and/or have talent in other areas, to do what? Career criminal? Lifetime welfare recipient? Both?

    Bottom line? The more people out of work, the bigger the tax burden on those remaining who have income or have a job. I don't quite advocate not modernizing or anything like that, so this rant is actually more about outsourcing labor than new labor for in-sourced robotics. But I think there is a lot going on here that is harming good people who just don't have ability. That's kind of sad. Some could call it evolution except that we're doing it in reverse -- the people who don't have jobs and stuff end up having more babies than those with ability and jobs and money.

    So what are we breeding here?

    • So what are we breeding here?

      Do you believe in eugenics?

    • by fa2k ( 881632 )

      This leaves people who are not technically inclined and not lucky enough to be trained and/or have talent in other areas, to do what? Career criminal? Lifetime welfare recipient? Both?

      We seem to find things to do even when all needs are met, some possible examples are
      -Farming gold in WoW, etc
      -Farming IRL for locally grown food using outdated non-industrial methods
      -Organising concerts and other entertainment events
      -Theme parks (could be greatly expanded)

      Even so, the economic system should be adjusted when appropriate, and the extra jobs above are just a transition period. This will happen when it's blindingly obvious that not everyone has to do a full day's work to sustain humanity. There

  • by Krishnoid ( 984597 ) * on Thursday September 05, 2013 @04:39PM (#44768791) Journal
    Manna [], by Marshall Brain. The article description is kind of a point-in-time description, but this story gives a good idea of a couple possible futures for increased robot involvement in businesses.
  • > and may offer a clue as to why some types of industry are bringing their manufacturing operations back to the U.S. from low-wage countries in order to increase efficiency.

    From what I've seen, how could it not? Price, efficiency, quality, pick two.

Never buy from a rich salesman. -- Goldenstern