Without trying to sound desperate, the industry really really really needs people. But it doesn’t just need workers; it needs good people that are excited about manufacturing technology and the great opportunities that are available for those that embrace the work.
By now, it’s understood that there are various ways to recruit the next generation of manufacturers. But with recruitment’s multi-faceted requirements, the task for individual companies can sometimes seem too daunting.
As longtime members of the industry, the founders of Vectis, an automation technology provider, understand manufacturing’s challenges quite well – so well that they created an entire business around it. When Vectis Automation LLC, formally launched in 2019, cobotic welding was just finding its legs, but thanks to the founders’ vision and other leaders in that space, cobotic welding is finding favor across the industry.
The innovation at the heart of Vectis is based on the founders’ long careers in traditional industrial robotics and their foresight to enable automated welding without the need for permanent safety barriers. To do so required a partnership with an automation hardware manufacturer, so considering its pioneering cobot offerings, Universal Robots (UR) was the clear choice. And as it turned out, UR was also looking for a partner to expand its products’ possibilities. It was an ideal match.
“We had incredibly unique software capabilities, and UR had already created the open platform for us to build on,” says Doug Rhoda, Vectis founder and chairman. “We had so much knowledge in robotic arc welding, cutting and path performance that we were able to bring to bear on their platform. It’s been a great relationship.”
There’s more to industry recruitment, though, than just cool tech tools. And leadership at Vectis fully understands that. That’s why they encourage folks to consider manufacturing and back that up through their personal commitments to offer educational opportunities and create a sense of community and self-empowerment.
Be it through a traditional four-year college or vocational path or an apprenticeship, formal training in welding is incredibly beneficial. So, Vectis partnered with the American Welding Society (AWS) Foundation to raise funds for welding scholarships that will empower more people to join the manufacturing community. Last April, in celebration of National Welding Month, the company donated $11,250 toward the Foundation’s ongoing educational endowment. The Foundation matched that donation for a total of nearly $25,000 that will be invested in the next generation.
“The thing that really binds us with AWS is the belief that a productive and strong manufacturing industry in America is an overall net positive benefit to society,” says Josh Pawley, vice president of business development at Vectis. “AWS’s purpose and mission is closely aligned with ours of empowering manufacturers to do more with less to be able to provide the things that society needs day in and day out.
“It’s rooted in the mutual principal belief that manufacturing is good for the United States,” he adds. “We’re seeing a resurgence in American manufacturing, and while that’s so important, I don’t think it’s going to be the same resurgence that it was in decades past. It’s going to look different this time, and it’s going to be more automated.”
Pawley adds the caveat that it won’t just be more automation that fuels the resurgence. It must also be driven by an overall approach to improving the industry as a whole to make it more attractive for talent. It is a core belief shared by Vectis and AWS and why Pawley says they work so well together.
“Education is one of the major pillars for how we will continue to grow American manufacturing,” he says. “From there, it’s working together with AWS on thought leadership in the space of automation to help manufacturers be more productive. Doug has an active role in that initiative as he chairs the AWS automation conference.”
In terms of bringing more talent into the industry, the team at Vectis sees a lot of opportunities for how to help.One way is encouraging more automation courses in vocational school curricula, which is more attractive to young students. The same philosophy holds true for a business’ equipment mix. When a company invests in automation, a common, positive side effect is better staff recruitment and retention.
A Place to Call Home
Vectis’ charitable donation is its first, but it won’t be its last. Vectis has been a sustaining member at AWS since its early days, and Pawley says the company wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We’re a sustaining member because we believe in the mission,” he explains. “Many of us are AWS members; many of us have AWS certifications, like the CWI and CRAW; and some of our team members, like Doug and product manager Marcus Yakawich, sit on AWS volunteering steering committees, as well.”
AWS also provides the industry with a sense of community, something that the team at Vectis holds dear. Long before sitting on steering committees and chairing conferences, Rhoda was a member of Ohio State’s AWS student chapter. In spite of any negative connotations attached to manufacturing back then, AWS gave him a place to call home and a pathway toward a rewarding career.
“I was initially exposed to AWS in the early 1980s when I was a student of welding engineering,” Rhoda says. “That was back when manufacturing was so out of favor in our country. There were a lot of people sounding the death knell of American manufacturing, so it’s incredibly satisfying to be part of the renaissance, the resurgence of American manufacturing and to arm American manufacturers with cobot fabrication tools.”
After college, Rhoda’s relationship with AWS continued. He landed a job as an application engineer with a great company and was mentored by John Hinrichs, a leader at AWS that was instrumental in creating the AWS D16 committee on robotic and automatic welding.
“There is an award for excellence in robotic welding that is named after him that I was fortunate enough to receive in 2017,” Rhoda says. “That meant a lot to me because he was kind of counter to a lot of the world at that time. John Hinrichs wasn’t alone, though. There are so many other people that have made big impacts in our industry with AWS roots.
“AWS’s role in cultivating someone like a John Hinrichs, me as a young person and others like us to bind us together is pretty special,” he adds. “It’s been 32 years that I’ve been a part of the AWS D16 committee. That committee and the AWS community is key for developing our industry, moving it forward and to inspiring young people to be a part of it.”
Thinking about the mentors he’s had throughout his career, Rhoda feels strongly about paying it forward and feels that mentorship is a calling. “The best part of my career has been seeing students far exceed the teacher,” he says. And he’s been able to see that every day at work through the staff at Vectis.
In fact, Vectis runs an internship program with its assembly and technical integration team, providing opportunities to young folks through donations and scholarships, but also through employment and mentoring and coaching opportunities.
“Besides the formal scholarships, we have a long history of developing talent with our local universities and community colleges,” Rhoda explains. “A critical success factor at my previous business and at Vectis is the people. In our previous company, Josh was one of those star interns that we saw and developed over time. We hired hundreds of interns, and at the end when we sold the business to Lincoln Electric, 80 percent of those people had been developed in-house through that program.
“That’s the legacy we’re promoting at Vectis – that it’s key to have the right company culture,” he continues. “We look for people that are hungry, humble and smart and then we invest in them greatly – formally, in training, and then informally, getting exposed, being mentored and so forth. It’s a win for the student, it’s a win for the college institutions and it’s definitely been a win for the businesses I’ve been responsible for.”
Today, at least 50 percent of the staff at Vectis were former interns. Both Rhoda and Pawley expect that to continue.
“Bringing on young, enthusiastic talent, open to learning and excited about the industry is really important to us,” Pawley says. “I started in robotic welding as an intern when I was in college 10 years ago, and the robot side really attracted me. We see a lot of young engineers and younger folks that are looking at industries, like aerospace and 3-D printing, but there is a limited number of jobs in those spaces. So, it’s really cool for me to see folks who may not have thought that manufacturing could be a great career
that end up loving it, like me.”
He’s quick to add, however, that Vectis touches nearly every industry and every size of company – “from oneperson weld shops where the owner is welding on the shop floor all the way up to Fortune 500 companies in all types of industries, like agriculture, construction, mining, general equipment, aerospace and defense, you name it.”
Not only do the younger staff at Vectis get the opportunity to dip their toes in a variety of industries, but they are also given great responsibility and accountability. They are given ownership of their projects while also getting access to veteran staff that will take them under their wing.
“The empowerment and accountability that we offer to everyone is a really neat aspect of our business,” Pawley says. “It’s one of the best ways for young folks to grow. Empower folks, and they will rise to the occasion.”
In that vein, the team at Vectis coined the term “cobot champion,” the individual that’s responsible for making a piece of automation work. The philosophy behind it is making sure that the entire team at Vectis knows that everything they do eventually has an impact on customers and their ability to succeed as their own cobot champion.
“We could have the simplest, best application, but if there isn’t a cobot champion, the end user might struggle,” Pawley explains. “There are other times, though, when a customer is working on a pretty tough application, but they’ve got an eager, willing-to-take-ownership cobot champion that is doing a stellar job. It’s all about the people. If they feel empowered and feel like they can take this tool and knock it out of the park, that’s where we see the highest level of success.”