The labor shortage and skills gap issues in the United States are well-documented, but it’s not an isolated incident – it is occurring worldwide. Even in China, population 1.4 billion, the manufacturing sector is facing a labor shortage of roughly 30 million. But in the United States, a 2021 report from Deloitte says manufacturing is expected to have 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030. Can software for manufacturing help bridge that gap?
Epicor Software Corp. builds solutions aimed at the manufacturing industry (and others) that address various needs, and a long list of customers currently benefit from its software. Andrew Robling, senior product manager at Epicor, spoke about current and future needs of manufacturers at Fabtech 2022 in Atlanta.
“This is something I think we all always knew could be a problem, but really exploded on the scene during the pandemic,” Robling says of the labor shortage. “We have a record number of unfilled jobs in America right now in manufacturing. It’s not going to get better; it’s going to get worse. We need to think about what we can do to help with that.”
Stemming the shortfall
In manufacturing, the front lines of the battle for most employers is to attract applicants. The traditional salary and benefits packages were once enough to satiate vacancies, but companies today are offering higher wages, signing bonuses, student debt relief programs and other benefits to gain the interest of potential candidates. Some are even relaxing drug testing requirements while others have established programs to employ former convicts.
Retention efforts are also underway to keep current employees in their positions instead of leaving for work outside manufacturing. Companies offer “mental health days” to curb burnout. When salaries are maxed out, unpaid benefits become the standard, such as making the workplace more enjoyable by offering perks in the breakroom or simply keeping up appearances throughout a facility via extra cleaning and decorations.
“Labor is always going to be important,” Robling says. “What can we do to have (employees) focus on the things they need to be doing?”
The answer, he says, could be to focus more on increasing automation on the shop floor, turning to artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, as well as automated warehouse technology. This is, of course, in Epicor’s wheelhouse.
It’s a huge win for companies to simply fill positions, but that’s only the beginning. Retention rates go way down in shops where new hires aren’t properly trained/onboarded. When new employees aren’t given the tools they need to succeed, they continuously make mistakes, which leads to unhappiness and, ultimately, they quit or are fired. By some accounts, companies with strong onboarding processes improve new hire retention by 82 percent.
Epicor MES (Manufacturing Execution Software) is a solution that provides a host of benefits for onboarding and much more. Robling says it has been developed, in part, to help bring new employees up to speed.
“This includes innovative, embedded training documentation and videos,” he says of Epicor’s MES, “as well as embedded work instructions and part drawings. In addition, new employees can easily call for assistance – the system has a simple touch button to call for help – and the operator can call for a supervisor. The call could be a text, email, voice over the PA system, etc.”
Robling says his personal favorite is the “Embedded Guided Digital Operator Work Instructions,” which utilizes a screen to guide a new operator through a task or process and ensures the operator is performing the task to specification.
“By integrating to the equipment the employee is using,” he says, “organizations can check and make sure the action they perform is the correct one and that it is being performed properly. An example might be when setting up a laser machine where the operator is guided through the proper calibration steps.”
Even the best-trained employee can cause bottlenecks due to occasional human error. Again, technology steps in to save the day. Companies using Epicor’s automated data collection through the MES can improve production and cut down on human error, which reduces the need for extra labor. Using the MES, machine cycle times can be collected directly from the machines instead of relying on an individual to record them manually.
“We have a customer who saw a 15 percent efficiency gain just by collecting data automatically from the machine instead of relying on an operator to count things,” Robling says.
Other tools embedded in the MES include automatically collecting the status of the machine to determine if it is up and running or down. The downtime can be flagged and a reason can be determined so teams can implement an improvement plan to reduce the downtime in the future.
It’s 2023, but yes, there are still job shops out there that track almost everything on paper. And in those manual situations, it’s inevitable that people will make mistakes – transpose numbers, get a part number wrong, lose or destroy the paper – you name it and it can happen.
“But these things all go away when you automate,” Robling says.
Another huge benefit of digitizing, which would include implementing an MES, is real-time visibility for employees on or off the shop floor, or even those working remotely. For example, purchasing employees spend a lot of time on the floor counting inventory, but in an automated scenario, their time can be better utilized.
“If they have real-time visibility, that means other people in the front office can work from home,” Robling says.
Real-time visibility can also extend to employee performance, providing the leadership team the information they need to make fact-based decisions to improve productivity. Robling refers to it as “needs awareness.”
“If you are collecting data on the shop floor,” he says, “you start to know how your employees are performing from an efficiency standpoint. You may even find that Jonny is efficient on machine 5, but Billy is more efficient on machine 6. You’re trying to find those kinds of things so you can improve your efficiency levels. If you do bring in new employees or temp labor, you start to know what machines they are bestsuited to operate because you have that data.”