In Grove City, Pennsylvania, factory workers at the General Electric remanufacturing plant scan barcodes on locomotive engines, pulling up detailed histories of the machines to diagnose for repairs. A few years ago, each would have been torn down, piece by piece, assessed using instruction manuals, and the servicing recorded in paper tomes. Now the focus is on big data, stored in the cloud, and with the help of algorithms, those workers target specific parts.
It's one example of the tectonic shift sweeping across factory floors — boosting productivity and uprooting the image of this kind of labor as "dark, dirty and dangerous."
As President Donald Trump pushes for a Made-in-America manufacturing rebirth, technology is simultaneously reshaping the sector. The adoption of automation, digitization, and robotics is fundamentally transforming the supply chain — and with it, job descriptions.
GE has been on the trend's forefront, which analysts say is still too nascent to have a meaningful impact on earnings. But the company has been investing billions of dollars to develop this, coining the clunky term "Industrial Internet of Things" and creating catchy commercials in an attempt to reimagine itself.
The crux is the "brilliant factory," a multi-tiered format that harnesses sensors, big data, software, robotics and additive manufacturing (basically, metal-based 3D printing).
So far, of 500 plants worldwide, GE has converted seven into "brilliant factory" showcases, including the one in Grove City. The plan: Grow that to 17 by year's end, and have wide-scale implementation in place by late 2020.
Philippe Cochet, GE's chief productivity officer, said the change will improve GE's ability to return cash to shareholders, since it reduces the space required to produce something, lead times, and inventory; but none of it, he stresses, is possible without the company's workforce – present and future — getting on board.
"The main challenge is… to get people who can cope with digital, also be able to use an iPad, be able to look at data on a screen," explained Cochet. "The second one is about teaming – the ability for people to work together… because without a team, this isn't going to work."
In 2015, Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute concluded that of the 3.5 million new manufacturing jobs forecast to be created by 2025, as many as 2 million could go unfilled due to a widening skills gap.
The National Skills Coalition has estimated that middle-skill jobs in computer technology, health care, construction, high-skill manufacturing and other fields, account for 54 percent of the labor market, but only 44 percent of workers are sufficiently trained.
"The key is learning. Individuals as well as employers have to be in an environment where learning and constant upgrading of skills is valued and motivated," said Ken Louie, an associate professor of economics at Penn State Behrend's Black School of Business and director of the Economic Institute of Erie.