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Robotics, Cyber Networks, Smart Machines are Now Essential Tools of Next Generation of Manufacturers

Original article written by Jennifer McNally. Jennifer is the editor of the monthly Times Free Press business publication, Edge Magazine. Reposted with permission from the author.

Photography by Matt Hamilton / Brianna Hamfeldt is one of two female welders currently employed at Komatsu. She was hired full-time in 2022 after earning her welding certification at Chattanooga State Community College.

Meeting employer demand in Chattanooga's manufacturing industry is no easy task.

We're now in "Industry 4.0," says Denise Rice, president and CEO of Peak Performance workforce training and manufacturing consulting firm, and advisor to the Tennessee Manufacturer's Association.

Robotics have become a normal part of industrial work culture; and the new focus is more about smart machines, connectivity, self-learning and cyber networks -- using our current devices and finding new ways for them to communicate.

All the changes have created a whole new set of challenges for manufacturers.

Rice estimates there are more than 5,000 manufacturing firms throughout Tennessee. Ninety-eight percent of those companies employ fewer than 500 people and the majority of those employ fewer than 20.

Over the next 10 years, approximately 4 million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled. More than ever, employers need skilled laborers for everything from entry-level work to high-tech maintenance and programming positions.

So, how does Chattanooga meet employer demands? The answer is complex, she says.

The solution involves attracting emergent workers (those trained and ready to enter the work force); retaining incumbent workers (including the 350,000+ currently employed); and finding ways to bring in "non-traditional workers" (women, members of the military, the disabled, refugees and those with a past criminal record). It also includes dispelling myths about the "four Ds" of automation: dull, dirty, dangerous and difficult.

"Manufacturing has always had a branding issue," Rice says. "People don't think of it as being high-tech, glamorous jobs, but 'Industry 4.0' is changing that, making it a more attractive career -- a career of choice for people."

In this fast-moving industry, the world is experiencing a lot of "automation anxiety," Rice says. "But really, it's about helping workers become more efficient. New technology changes the work. While there are many jobs that will be eliminated, there are many more jobs that will be created."

Komatsu uses humans and robots to build construction machinery

Komatsu America Corp. opened its Chattanooga facility in 1985, becoming the first Japanese-based manufacturer in Tennessee. It's one of several local employers that works with regional high schools and colleges to help train new employees.

During the pandemic, Komatsu, which makes heavy construction vehicles, saw many of its older employees decide to retire, says General Manager Walt Nichols -- a trend that has continued since then. The good news, for now, he says, is that the company has finally returned to its pre-pandemic staffing figures. But still, replacing the talent level and experience of the older generation isn't easy.

Robotics have been a part of the industrial vehicle maker's assembly process for about 30 years now, with machinery handling about 97% of the fabrication process. Humans take care of the other 3% -- manually welding segments that the robots can't.

On average, Komatsu builds about 10 vehicles per day, says Nichols -- an average of 2,200 to 2,500 per year. The assembly line is 100% manual, and keeping the floor fully staffed is in an ongoing challenge.

Part of the solution for Komatsu has been to offer internal training through an apprenticeship program. "Our main goal is to find good people," says Nichols. "And if you don't know how to assemble or weld, we'll teach you."

There is also the pre-apprenticeship program for students. Right now, Komatsu has five high school seniors enrolled and is looking to add five more. The program is a year old, with students working half a day at $15 per hour and a new mentor each week.

"These students have been fantastic," Nichols says of the current class. "I think most of them want to walk across the stage at their high school graduation, then come back here."

Photography by Matt Hamilton / The assembly line at Komatsu is 100% human-powered, with the teams putting out an average of 10 industrial vehicles per day.

Encouraging manufacturing work for the next generation

The Scenic City has fought hard to dispel negative associations with manufacturing, says Megan King, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Regional Manufacturer's Association.

In her position, King helps promote careers in the industry. A major part of that includes connecting with high school students and introducing them to career paths they might not know existed.

"A lot of high-schoolers don't have an accurate perception of manufacturing. They think of it as dark and dirty, in facilities with heavy manual labor," King says. But while some of that does still exist, there are many examples of clean, well-organized work environments. "It's important for students to see that at a young age," she adds.

Part of Chattanooga's industrial comeback is due to the city's centralized location, she says. New companies like having access to many interstate highways, logistics networks and regional suppliers. But to "seal the deal," corporate decision makers need to see promise of a viable work force.

And the best way to ensure that, she says, is by reaching out to students at a young age -- talking to them at career fairs, visiting classrooms, taking them on tours of the facilities.

"We need to be showing them what it looks like, how it's changing with technology," King says. Many don't see it as an industry with growth, and it's a part of our mission to make sure we're changing that."

Chattanooga State adds more technical training

When it comes to reaching out to future students, Chattanooga State Community College is on the job, says Nancy Patterson, vice president of College Advancement and Public Relations for the school. Similar to King, it's part of her mission to make students aware of the many high-paying and rewarding careers available.

To help make school accessible to as many as possible, Chattanooga State offers a variety of learning tracks and "on ramps" including short-term certifications (three to six weeks), technical diplomas (one year or less) and associate degrees with transfer pathways (two years). Many certifications and diplomas lead to associate degrees, as well as transfer pathways to a bachelor's degree including courses offered through the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC).

Patterson looks forward to the completion of the college's Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCAT) Advanced Manufacturing Center, which is under construction and expected to open in 2024. With the new building, the school will have the space to grow programs like Industrial Electricity, Industrial Maintenance and Mechatronics. They'll also launch a new program on Industrial Automation.

"We can't train students fast enough," says Patterson. "We spend a lot of intentional time finding ways to expand student access to better meet employer demands."

David Burgess is a long-time instructor of Industrial Processes at Chattanooga State's TCAT. For him, as the department head in Industrial Processes, meeting employer needs is a problem with three main factors.

The first is that, as a society, we have fewer people graduating high school, which means there are not enough workers. The flip side of that is the aging work force. Businesses are already feeling the pain as Baby Boomers continue to retire. And the third is the amount of time it takes to train for the highly-skilled technical positions.

"We can get a whole lot from school, especially in robotics," he says. "But what we can't get is the hands-on experience that's provided by working. This sort of learning takes time."

Burgess adds that company willingness to invest in employee apprenticeships may be the last missing piece. When Chattanooga was in its industrial heyday, the city had a workforce that was encouraged to advance through on-the-job training.

"Somewhere along the way, the manufacturing community has lost the vision of training employees as they once did," Burgess says. "A lot of industrial partners do not understand how complicated the equipment is the they use in their own facility."

As for "automation anxiety?" Burgess isn't losing any sleep over it.

"From what I've seen in my career, it's creating greater employment," he says. "Someone has to make the robot. Someone has to make the equipment, make the machinery, do the wiring, the plumbing, the foundation, the fabrication. And once that is up and running, then someone has to do the IT side of it.

"It's not taking our lives away, it's enhancing. It really makes life better."

Photography by Jennifer McNally / David Burgess, long-time instructor of Industrial Processes at Chattanooga State.

Programmers boost factory pay levels

The bright spot in the current work environment, is that we are beginning to have jobs that will pay much better -- especially for those who are hired to do programming, says Dr. James Newman, professor and department head of UTC's College of Mechanical Engineering.

For decades now, UTC has partnered with local and regional companies, placing students in internship positions that often lead to full-time work. The short list of those companies includes Miller Industries, Komatsu, United Intertech, Aztec and the National Boiler Service in Trenton, Ga.

Part of the problem in meeting employer workforce demands, he says, is the high turnover rate, which can happen for a variety of reasons. One obvious cause, he suggests, would be that manufacturing jobs are labor intensive.

"In the higher-skilled, higher-paid engineering position, there tends to be less turnover," says Newman. "This is where they don't have enough engineers to meet demand at higher level, especially as more advanced equipment comes on line."

Within the last 10 years, UTC's College of Engineering has doubled its student enrollment, he says -- and the school is still struggling to keep up with the demand for engineers. His best estimate is that the school will only be able to reach about 30% of the local industry need.

"There is a big push at UTC to increase engineering students to meet the demand," he says. "Just about every company, every industry ... they need mechanical engineers on staff."

But while robots have taken over many jobs, they can't do it all, he says. He uses the Walmart self-check as the example: Machines do almost all the work, but there are still employees in who oversee checkout lines, stock shelves and unloading trucks and pallets.

"You will always need people," he says.

What does this mean?

Advanced connectivity: An example of this is when a person pulls into the driveway and speaks into their smart phone and says "Hey Google, I'm home." The lights come on. The thermostat changes. It's taking what we already have and innovating ways for machinery to connect.

Data-driven intelligence: Otherwise known as AI, machine learning or big data. An example is when we talk about products or subjects and they show up as "Recommended for You" on Amazon or social media. Companies are collecting data and using AI to predict what a person may buy. In manufacturing, that can be used for maintenance -- collecting data to know when a piece needs to be replaced before the machine breaks.

Human-machine integration: Mixing real world and virtual world. In the home, an easy example would be a Roomba, which helps make us more productive because we can do things like work at home while also cleaning the house. In the past, when dealing with robots, we've had to have big fences for safety and security. But robots going out today have human-machine integration with sensors.

Advanced production methods: This is mostly connected with new types of manufacturing like additive manufacturing, or 3D printing. For many years, companies did subtractive -- shaving away. With 3D printing, we are building the part, which is much more cost effective. Another example might be operating a forklift from home. In the future, we may have work centers where people might be virtually operating machinery like forklifts, but be sitting in an office together.

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