Sarah Boisvert has put her 30+ years of experience in the design, development, and commercialization of high technology products, digital fabrication, laser machining and 3D printing to excellent use as the founder and CEO of the Fab Lab Hub, the Co-founder of the New Collar Network, and the author of the book, The New Collar Workforce. In this episode, she shares what her research has revealed employers – particularly in manufacturing – are looking for and the new ways that operators and technicians can demonstrate skills competency. From her interview:
On the technical side, one of the most prevalent skills that people were looking for was digital skills. Today, if you’re running a welding machine, you also have to be able to look at a CAD design and determine what are the parameters…So, your operator has to be able to look at a CAD file, and be able to, not just have the G-code pre-programmed so that it fixes things, but be able to really get beyond that and to make the kinds of adjustments that will ensure good quality parts.
As an employer, if somebody comes to me, and they tell me they have a badge in running a CNC machine, I want to know that they’ve run a CNC machine, right? That they’ve been in the trenches. And they know what to do when…like, you’re running a metals 3D printer, and it catches on fire! I want them to know what to do! I don’t want it to be a theoretical exercise…A badge program has to have currency for the student and for the employer.
In 2020, Intel and the Maricopa Community College District issued a joint press release announcing their partnership to launch the first associate degree program in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. Carlos Contreras with Intel notes a sense of urgency around this technology because of the speed at which it is being adopted by a wide variety of industry sectors. Partnerships between educational institutions and industry provide a collaborative model that is custom-built to address the speed of the transition in the region. Working together, the colleges and Intel hope to bring the U.S. workforce up to the AI skill level of countries such as South Korea, India, Singapore. In this episode, Bassam Matar from Chandler Gilbert Community College describes the design and roll-out of their AAS degree and certificate program, both of which are designed to expand digital readiness for the future of work. Ultimately, says Contreras, as a company, Intel’s goal “by 2030 is to reach 30 countries, 30,000 institutions and get 30 million students skilled in artificial intelligence.”
Over the last decade, collaborative robot technology has really gained traction in the automation market. Collaborative robots (cobots) can safely operate in close proximity to skilled human operators and are very easy to deploy and use, explains Joe Campbell of Universal Robots. Cobot programming is very simple in contrast to traditional robots so technicians can learn the fundamentals within a few hours through UR’s online academy. This accessibility conveys an added benefit—it helps combat the perception that manufacturing is dull, dirty, and dangerous, a misconception that steers younger technicians away from the field. And for incumbent workers, deploying cobots may mean moving a technician into a higher-value assignment.
So, what are the skills and knowledge that Campbell finds cobot technicians need? Campbell believes that:
You need a logical thinker, somebody who can solve problems and communicate well. But it’s more about those skills, in my opinion, than it is about hard programming knowledge and advanced mathematics. The whole industry, and Universal in particular, are building tools that really deliver that high technology part of the equation.
Dave Vasko, Director of Advanced Technologies at Rockwell Automation, describes how the increasing sophistication and capabilities of technologies coming to the manufacturing floor — technologies such as AI and the anticipated hybridization of large-scale robots with slower more independent cobots – are creating a lot of complexity for the technician. Going forward, he says, technicians will require different skills: the ability to configure networks and firewalls, to operate equipment remotely and collaboratively, and to troubleshoot the initial commissioning of equipment using digital twins with virtual reality, just to name a few. The approach to programming is changing as well, from writing code from scratch to starting with a library of possible code that can be applied and then debugged at the machine. This convergence of OT with IT means that it is, as Vasko notes, an exciting time to be in manufacturing:
We’ve been looking at some of these changes for a couple decades. The technology has really caught up with the changes that we thought would occur in manufacturing. So many manufacturers need employees. And I think these are incredibly fun jobs. They’re challenging jobs. They’re exciting careers.
Having been part of a company that distributes, rebuilds and services machine tools for nearly 40 years, Terry Iverson has seen many changes in CNC systems and in manufacturing overall. In this episode, he shares his perspectives on the factors driving CNC manufacturing today—global competitiveness, reshoring, and the need for younger employees; explains the unique characteristics of the four types of control systems; and describes the impact of emerging technologies. Where is industry going next with additive manufacturing and cobots? And what impact will this have on the education of entry-level technicians?