September 19, 2014    Volume 21, No. 14

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At The International Manufacturing Technology Show In Chicago, Here Is What Hundreds Of Manufacturing Men Had To Say

By Richard A. McCormack

CHICAGO -- A revolution in technology is transforming manufacturing production. Advanced integrated circuits, sensors and software are now fully embedded in new production equipment that is capable of producing sophisticated products without any guidance from untrained operators. The new production machines require a new workforce capable of running them.

That is the message from the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) held in Chicago this September and hosted by the Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT). The show occupies 1.4 million square feet of space, with huge pieces of production equipment on display operating at a pace that is mesmerizing for its preciseness.

What does it mean for humans working on the production floor when there is no need for humans to be working on the production floor? As one engineer said in the Fanuc booth displaying the company's "Spider" pick-and-place robot: "It runs three shifts per day without needing a break. It is easy to program. It doesn't need space that is heated, air conditioned or lighted. It processes 200 parts per minute compared to a human that is able to process one part every one or two seconds." The cost: $25,000 to $30,000.

Standing at the Alliance for American Manufacturing's booth for a day signing a book he edited and authored entitled "ReMaking America," Manufacturing & Technology News editor Richard McCormack spoke with 250 to 300 people asking them three questions: How is business? Is there an American manufacturing renaissance? Do you see evidence of reshoring?

The majority of manufacturing men replied that business is going "gangbusters," or is "busy-busy" or -- the most commonly used term -- "booming."

But without prompting, virtually all of these men -- and they were almost all men -- said their companies are facing a formidable challenge: They can't find people who know how to work the new equipment. As manufacturing picks up in the United States, the five million American manufacturing workers who have lost their jobs over the past decade will not be able to compete with robotic systems, automated machining, and highly precise and fast robotic pick and place machines. (Good luck to China when cheap robotic systems start displacing 110 million unskilled Chinese manufacturing workers.)

The men walking the floor of IMTS were in agreement on what they need collectively more than anything else: A new generation of manufacturing workers who are really good at engineering, kinetics, computer programming and math -- algebra, geometry, calculus and especially trigonometry. Such workers face a bright future if they seize the opportunity, and they will get paid well, too, said dozens of manufacturers.

Such workers can start at $27 an hour and quickly move up to $32 an hour if they show potential and gain experience. "They can earn $70,000 to $80,000 a year, yet we can't find people coming out of college who can do this work," said one manufacturing man. "It's crazy." For those students enrolled in the right technical and vocational training programs "they are getting hired out of school before they graduate," noted another IMTS attendee.

Dozens of others stated that for some reason, younger workers are distracted by cell phones and social networks and seem lackadaisical, unwilling to put in the hard work that is required to learn the technical skills. "Video games have taken a lot out of them," said one manufacturing company owner. Added another: "Just getting people to come to work is the biggest problem or just passing drug tests."

As for how manufacturing is faring in general, there is a sense of buoyancy and hope among many of the manufacturers -- especially those involved in medical equipment, automotive, energy production, aerospace and in low-volume custom parts. One aerospace supplier marveled at the fact that Boeing is producing 42 737s per month, a production run that is keeping a lot of shops busy.

On the other hand, those supplying Caterpillar and Deere said they are hurting, with one manufacturer saying that he is now supplying Deere with 20,000 parts, down from 40,000 a few years ago. Many others shrugged their shoulders, shook their heads and said they are still struggling.

Reflecting a common sentiment, one said business is "better than it was four years ago but not yet back to what it was in 2008." Another added: "The reason we're doing so well is because so many of our competitors are gone."

Having been scarred by outsourcing and the manufacturing depression of 2001 and the recession that further clobbered manufacturing in 2008, there remains a great deal of skepticism. "Our business is great, but let's hope we don't blow it," said one attendee.

"Work is coming back to Mexico but not the United States," said another. One said he still sees 60 percent of manufacturing heading offshore versus 40 percent coming back via reshoring. "Manufacturing is trickling back to the U.S., but it sure didn't leave in a trickle," said another. "Every manufacturing plant I go to is expanding," said one. "Our business is up because our country is realizing we have to automate production in order to stay competitive," said another. "Companies are tired of the garbage they get from overseas, the time lag and the language differences."

Others lamented that so much of the innovation taking place in production technology is no longer in the United States, and dozens of manufacturing men at IMTS were quick to point at hundreds of non-American names on the slick booths. "It's sickening what's happened to the U.S. machine tool industry," said one manufacturing executive. "Buy American or it's bye-bye America," said another. "If you go into a GM manufacturing plant all you see is foreign equipment, yet GM wants Americans to buy an American car? "

An automobile industry supplier said his company is having trouble buying steel from American factories. The reason: the American auto companies have all certified steel from Chinese plants and now require them to buy from those suppliers. "There are steel shortages from U.S. companies," he said, naming Republic and Timken.

During the show, McCormack sat down with the master of ceremonies, AMT president Douglas Woods, who has been involved in the industry his entire life, working in a machine shop at age 15 and attending his first IMTS with his grandfather in 1978. The Q&A with Woods is available online for subscribers.

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