Four key challenges facing Manufacturing Engineers

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Automation World’s Director of Content/Editor-in-Chief, David Greenfield, shares insights on today’s manufacturing engineer, technology, and machine builder priorities.

Time—there is not enough of it. Certainly not enough to waste. Automation World is a resource manufacturing engineers count on to save them time. What are the primary time-based frustrations impacting the success of the manufacturing engineer?

Just as there is not enough time, there is certainly no lack of frustrations for manufacturing engineers. Based on the research and interviews we conduct with our audience, four main frustrations come up repeatedly:

Older engineers often struggle with the lack of practical engineering knowledge possessed by younger engineers. Though it’s easy to point fingers at the engineering education system, the bigger culprit is what happened to the manufacturing industry in the U.S. over the past few decades—from its perception as being an industry few wanted to work in to the increasing number of disappearing jobs, the pipeline for the next generation of engineers largely evaporated in the 80s and 90s and has only recently begun to recover. As a result, it will take years to deliver a sizable new generation of engineers with the practical know-how that seasoned engineers are looking for today. The impact on time and engineering success due to this frustration is two-fold: 1) Experienced engineers have less time to strategize and/or innovate, as they are still needed in a hands-on capacity on the plant floor; 2) Younger engineers are not getting the mentoring they need to become tomorrow’s seasoned engineer. Fortunately, the increasing use of mobile devices in industry makes it possible to bring how-to knowledge and operational instructions direct to the engineer or operator, thereby easing the need for the high levels of direct mentorship needed in the past.

Unrealistic time allocations. Customer demands and/or promises by sales people can put engineering teams on the spot when it comes to delivering as promised or expected. As I see it, there are three ways to deal with this: 1) Critically evaluate your processes and technologies. To truly understand why it takes the time it does to deliver your product, you need to assess your in-house and supply chain processes, your design and manufacturing efficiencies (or lack thereof), and the technologies used to support your operations—from design through production and shipping. Chances are you can find plenty of areas for improvement in at least one of these areas, if not all three; 2) Create a better alignment between sales and engineering by educating sales on the processes required to deliver your company’s goods at the quality level you promise; 3) Educate the customer about your production processes so that they understand your time to deliver framework.

Lack of technology investment by companies. The verbatim comments in many of our surveys shows a large degree of frustration with the amount of technology investment by manufacturing companies in general. The “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” mentality is set in stone at many companies and the result is that engineers often spend time performing manual duties that could be automated, or performing maintenance that would be better managed by software. The lack of visibility into operations, machine condition, and quality factors at companies that don’t properly invest in technology creates a lot of time-consuming work for engineers—not to mention the lack of competitive advantage that results for those companies.

On the flip side of the company technology investment equation is a frustration I have seen some engineers create for themselves, i.e., an unwarranted aversion to new technology. Though I regularly encounter examples of this—from aversion to mobile devices, a fear of wireless, and just about anything that requires working with the corporate IT group—the best example I’ve seen of new technology aversion from an engineer happened at an industry event about 10 years ago. At the time, the connection of manufacturing execution systems to enterprise systems via Ethernet was increasing. When I asked an engineer at this event what he thought of this development, and if he was involved with such a project at his facility, he leaned in close, put his finger nearly in my face and said, “Ethernet will come on to my plant floor over my dead body. Ethernet is not a plant floor network.” This engineer was not very old at the time of this discussion, so I have to assume that he has gotten onboard with the use of Ethernet on the plant floor, been relieved of his duties, or died. Bottom line: As with the lack of company investment described above, some engineers create their own lack-of-time issues by being closed-minded to technologies that could help alleviate the problem.

Engineers are passionate about innovation. And as products and solutions grow in complexity and cost, how do you see engineers balancing the need to innovate with the obligation to design applications with cost and margin in mind?

As much as I’ve seen evidence of engineers passion for innovation, I’d have to say that I’ve seen even more evidence of engineers’ passion to design products and systems that meet or exceed cost and margin requirements. The better-faster-cheaper ideal is more often at the heart of engineering innovation than the creation of new system or product designs. Though work on truly innovative products and systems are always ongoing, behind-the-scenes innovation in existing processes or designs happens much more frequently—typically driven by engineers’ focus on cost and complexity. From my observations, system and product complexity and cost are often the primary drivers of engineering innovation rather than a hindrance to it.

Machine builders are trying to standardize as mush as possible to streamline operations and deliver lower prices, but this often runs counter to the increasing levels of customization sought by customers. Facing this contrast in demands, how are machine builders responding to establish best in class results?

If there is one approach I’m seeing used most often to address this, it’s flexible automation. This applies to both hardware and software—from features such as greater recipe management and detailed tracking/tracing capabilities in software, to multi-purpose machines using flexible control systems (including those that use field programmable gate arrays, allowing the processors to be reprogrammed after deployment), to motor/drive combinations that can adapt to different applications. Essentially, the new best-in-class standard approach for OEMs is flexibility—both in the systems they use to produce their machines as well as in the machines they produce. The need for flexibility is ultimately being driven by the final end customers’ customization requirements, which drives the machine buyers’ need for customizability and which, in turn, drives the OEM’s need for flexibility.