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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Manufacturing round table: Computers and robotics are key for production, recruiting and education

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••• SPONSORED SECTION •••

“You aren’t able to just do it with a wrench anymore.” Computerization and robotics are key for production, recruiting and education. For this Business
North Carolina
round table, manufacturing leaders talk about technology, post-COVID growth, shortage of employees, reaching students early and cybersecurity. 


Cargo Transporters, Mertek Solutions, NC Chamber, Pitt County Economic Development, The Rise Companies, Technology Associates and UNC Charlotte sponsored the discussion. It was edited for brevity and clarity.  


PICTURED BELOW

FIRST ROW
JON ANDERSON
president, RISE Companies

ERIC HOBBS
president, Technology Associates

SCOTT McINTYRE
site manager, Avient Corporation

SECOND ROW
PHIL MINTZ (MODERATOR)
executive director, N.C. State Industry Expansion Solutions
director, North Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership

BRIGID MULLANY
mechanical engineering professor, associate dean for research, UNC Charlotte

THIRD ROW
JERRY PEDLEY
president, Mertek Solutions

GARY SALAMIDO
president and CEO, NC Chamber

COURTNEY SILVER
president, Ketchie Inc.

YOU REPRESENT DIVERSE MANUFACTURERS. CAN YOU TELL US
ABOUT YOUR COMPANY?

SILVER: Ketchie is a precision machine shop in Concord. We mainly support the railroad, heavy equipment and road construction equipment industries. 

McINTYRE: I’m the site director for Avient Protective Materials. We manufacture Dyneema, which is the strongest synthetic fiber in the world. It’s made in Greenville. There’s also a smaller facility in the Netherlands. It goes into bulletproof vests,cut-resistant gloves, ropes, nets and consumer applications. 

PEDLEY: Mertek Solutions is in Sanford. We design and build automated assembly and test equipment. Business North Carolina named me Mr. Robot years ago and it seems to have stuck with me, so I appreciate that.

ANDERSON: The RISE Companies is an investment company.  We are buying and leading companies in manufacturing and industrial industries. Current companies are in commercial electrical contracting and metal fabrication.

HOBBS: Technology Associates is based in Raleigh. We’re a full service technology solutions firm providing support for small- to medium-sized businesses.

MINTZ: N.C. State Industry Expansion Solutions is an extension and outreach division of the College of Engineering on campus. I also operate as the director of the North Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership. It’s geared to work with mostly smaller manufacturers, to make sure that N.C. manufacturers have all the things that they need such as best practices and access to technology information. 

WHAT IS THE STATE OF MANUFACTURING IN NORTH CAROLINA? ARE THINGS AS GOOD AS BEFORE COVID?

MCINTYRE: I can’t speak for the state. I can certainly talk more for eastern North Carolina. Trying to recruit people into manufacturing now is very, very difficult. It has been since the pandemic. We are sold out to our capacity. I know that our next-door neighbors, Thermo Fisher (pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors), they are growing like crazy. We have Hyster-Yale, which makes lift trucks and we have Grady White Boats. All of them have hiring signs outside of their plants. So I think that says a lot about how positively manufacturing is going. In the past, we put an application out and within four or five days, we’d have hundreds of applicants. For a technician job now we get 10 to 20 applicants. I think the generation coming through now, these jobs are not as appealing maybe as 10, 20, 30 years ago. My son is 22 years old. He wants to work in social media or something that’s going to make him rich very quickly.  

SILVER: We have a very long backlog. North Carolina has always been a manufacturing powerhouse. That probably speaks to why we were founded here in1947. We have a low cost of doing business in our state compared to other states. We have a competitive tax rate. Nationally, there are 13 million manufacturing workers, and that’s the highest level of manufacturing workers that we’ve had since 2008. I saw that the manufacturing sector averaged 780,000 job openings for our sector over the last 12 months.

JERRY, ARE YOU STILL GETTING ORDERS FOR THESE SYSTEMS THAT COMPANIES USE TO TRY TO MITIGATE MAYBE SOME OF THE WORKFORCE ISSUES?

PEDLEY: Everybody wants a machine to do projects at this time. We have shipped a
lot of machines. A project for us is a year long. We’ve seen shifts in our customers
from, from automotive to medical and consumer goods. We have a lot of skilled
employees all over. And yes, people want robots to put things together when it has
a good return on investment.

GARY, WHAT IS YOUR MANUFACTURING COUNCIL TELLING YOU?  

SALAMIDO: We’re hearing a lot about what you all have been saying so far. I know the (shortage of) talent piece is real. We need to get our young people interested in the incredible work that’s going on. It’s not your father’s or grandfather’s manufacturing anymore. We need a lot of  talent that can be utilized in different ways. We’re really competitive along a lot of dimensions. We want to continue to be a state
that attracts talent from all over
the world.

WHAT ARE SOME THINGS YOU ARE DOING TO HELP YOUR SITUATION WITH RECRUITING WORKERS INTO MANUFACTURING?

MCINTYRE: We’ve tried a bit of everything. During COVID, we did have to bring some lines down. We shut down three of our six lines. Then we had to ramp back up. We are looking to bring in another 50 to100 people and it’s been a challenge. For two years we were understaffed. Just at the end of last year we managed to get fully staffed. We’ve tried different recruiters and different ways of advertising. One of the most effective ways was having a job fair on the site. We did a social media blast to everyone within a certain area. We had a tremendous response to that. It was almost like speed dating. You would come in, you would get an overview of the company, then ultimately the last table was to sign up for a job if both sides were interested. So that worked well, but that was a panic situation. 

What we’re figuring out right now is how do we get more integrated going forward so that we don’t get to that position that we’re really struggling to get people in. We’re working more closely with the schools now. We will bring in school children and teachers and tell them what we do. Coming from Scotland to the U.S. I have seen that apprenticeships are not nearly as big a deal here. In Scotland and in Europe in general, at the end of an apprenticeship, nine times out of 10, a full-time job would come. That’s something that we are looking at with the veteran community and Pitt Community College.

SILVER: We’re also doing a whole lot at once. We’re making investments in machining technology, robotics, automation and in our workforce. Earlier this year, we invested in a collaborative robot. So not only does it bring down our lead times, increase our output and reduce our backlog, it helps attract a skilled workforce. This next generation of workers wants to use creativity and work on the latest and greatest technology. During interviews, we’ve had people say: “It’s really great that you’re investing so much in technology and robotics and have this vision.” We have an apprenticeship program here at Ketchie. We also started something this year called Opportunity Knocks. It’s a high school internship program. They come to Ketchie for four days a week and have mentors in the shop. Each day is two hours. They job shadow machinists for three days. On the fourth day they’re in a classroom setting. It’s been so energizing to see some of my team members who have been machinists for 30 years have the opportunity to give back and share knowledge.

ERIC, HOW ARE YOU ADDRESSING DATA MANAGEMENT AND CYBER ISSUES?

HOBBS: First, to echo what’s already been talked about, we have heard consistently across all of our manufacturing and construction companies that it’s a record year for them as a company. Many have been around 40 years. We’re hearing a lot less about how they can’t get products. It’s finding employees that is the sticking point. In the past from a recruiting standpoint, you’d post the openings and pray. Now we see human resources as kind of the other side of the growth-and-sales coin. We’re a 30-person company, probably the smallest in this group here, but we have a full-time person doing nothing but human resources and recruiting. From a cybersecurity standpoint, it’s worse and worse. I think there is a preconceived notion that manufacturing can kind of fly under the radar. FBI reports show that manufacturing as a group is around 14% of all cyber related breaches. 

Our customers are really getting focused on security. A lot of people focus on ransomware. From the data we see, ransomware really isn’t the biggest risk in the cybersecurity landscape. It’s more business email compromises. An FBI study said ransomware resulted in about $34 million in losses in the U.S. and the cost of business email compromise was $2.75 billion. That’s 80 times the risk. We are telling our manufacturing clients: “80% of your problem is coming from people and less than10% is coming from vulnerabilities.” It’s the employees who willingly click on something, give up credentials and get hacked that are the problem. If folks would simply instate an operational requirement to verify any banking changes via phone you would virtually eliminate all the business email compromised risks. If we can get people to do common sense approaches versus looking for another tool to employ I think they would be in a better position. We’ve had people call us from across the state, a lot in manufacturing and they say: “We just transferred $50,000 to the wrong account.” We’re trying to get people to focus on how to mitigate that exposure rather than invest a boatload of money in
more IT infrastructure.

BRIGID, WHAT IS UNCC WORKING ON THAT GIVES US AN INDICATION OF WHERE MANUFACTURING IS GOING?  

MULLANY: Digital is coming into everything that we do and a lot of the manufacturing faculty embrace that. We’ve had a lot of recent new hires in manufacturing here at UNCC and all of them have a digital component to their work, either machine learning or visual guided human-robot collaborative assembly. Students come in thinking they know what manufacturing is, but they don’t realize all the bells and whistles that come with it. You aren’t able to just do it with a wrench anymore. You need to hook it up to a computer and do the diagnostics and program it. Manufacturing has evolved so much. We’re seeing more of the collaboration between computer science and manufacturing. Curriculums have to evolve. There is basic core material you have to cover to have a safe engineer out in the world. A lot of curriculum is students working with faculty in the research labs. They get into the lab and teachers say: “You know that thing you learned in class, well here’s the application and the machine learning.”

IN THE COLLEGE OF ENGINEERING HERE AT N.C. STATE WE PROMOTE
STUDENTS TAKING ON SUMMER INTERNSHIPS AT FACTORIES.
ARE YOU
SEEING MUCH OF THIS?

MULLANY: UNCC has that too. I think 80% of them are industry funded, the industry sponsors are on the team. It’s like a two-semester long interview for a student, or a two-semester long introduction to a company. The linkage with the industry is key. The National Academies report (press covering science, engineering and medicine) report was also pushing it. They want the National Science Foundation to fund more undergraduate internships at companies. I hope some of the federal dollars will make their way to that.

PEDLEY: I don’t think there is anything more important than to get involved with your area high schools and their academies of engineering, your community college and your universities.

NORTH CAROLINA CONTINUES TO RECRUIT THESE HUGE FACTORIES THAT NEED EVEN MORE WORKERS. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT THAT?

SALAMIDO: In the public system right now, there are a couple of initiatives that are a great opportunity for that engagement that Jerry talked about. The Department of Public Instruction recently launched a career planning piece. They are going to start introducing students in middle school to what a career plan could look like. Introducing manufacturing careers is a way of keeping potential employees in the pipeline. Companies want to know that there’s a predictable capacity and alignment between what the employers need and what the education system is producing. If they’re going to invest tens of millions, hundreds of millions, billions of dollars they want to know that there are going to be workers here for a long time. Also, we’re hearing a lot more about second chance
hiring as an opportunity. Manufacturing can play an important role there. We can make sure that we introduce those folks that have not had any felonies or anything violent, but have been caught in the system and have not been able to figure a way back, into the workforce. North Carolina is a veteran-friendly state. There is opportunity with our
veterans to continue to build the relationships with the business community and the manufacturing community.

JON, AS A RECOVERING BANKER, AS YOU DESCRIBED YOURSELF, WHAT KIND OF PROJECTS ARE YOU HEARING ABOUT? WHAT WHAT DO MANUFACTURERS NEED?

ANDERSON: I think Jerry will be glad to hear the answer, but, certainly people are looking for any sort of robotics, any sort of machinery that could make their plants faster. They are certainly looking to invest in either automation or recruitment.

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE LOOK LIKE IN TERMS OF GROWTH? 

MCINTYRE: We’ve got three segments. The biggest is personal protection for the military, law enforcement, first responders and those needs. We expect that to continue to grow. The other one is marine industrial fibers, ropes and nets that are on tankers and cruise ships. They’re also in the sustainable side of things because they’re used to

tethering down offshore wind farms. Another segment is nets, which are in aquaculture and even every major baseball stadium has a net that’s got Dyneema fiber in it. I think our growth area is in the consumer side. We’ve got fiber that is going into tents and end users are saving because of the sustainability. The final product is less weight and requires a lot less fuel to transport and lasts longer. We’re going have to build a new fiber production line, which is a very significant investment. That will be in Greenville. The decision has been made, it won’t be in the Netherlands or China.

SILVER: We definitely have a strong vision of growth because our customers require it. I really think our whole country needs manufacturing to be a team sport. We need to use our partners in our community, like the N.C. Industrial Commission, the N.C. Manufacturing Institute, the Small Business and Technology Center. We have to work together. Especially the small- and medium-sized manufacturers, we have to grow. There are challenges, especially as a small manufacturer. Investing in robotics and needing that ROI, is crucial for the small manufacturer, but they don’t have a lot of sources of capital, like larger manufacturers. So you need really good partnerships in the community, and to have good suppliers and good robotic integrators. We need to not only service our current customers, but go into industries that we aren’t in yet.

PEDLEY: Medical and consumer goods are certainly areas we’re looking at for growth. Medical device assembly, things like that.

 

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