Manufacturing has a skills shortage, which low unemployment in Oregon is covering up. With Baby Boomers retiring by the million (the Silver Tsunami) manufacturing is just another sector in need of fresh blood (and brains).
In Oregon, nearly 30 percent of the gross state product comes from manufacturing — the second highest percentage in the U.S. But because manufacturing is making a comeback and has been hit by technological change, the need is more urgent than in industries like healthcare or construction.
At the Oregon Manufacturers' Summit in Salem on Monday, March 13, people gathered to hear what's new in the field. One big topic was OMIC, the Oregon Manufacturing Innovation Center which is incubating on a 455,200 square-foot site in Scappoose. The other was how to keep squeezing efficiencies out of every machine shop and assembly plant in Oregon in the face of competition everywhere from Shenzhen to Detroit.
Jan Mellinger, vice president of sales at Northwest Fourslide of Sherwood, which performs metal stamping and wire pulling, explained the need. "We make our own dies for the fourslide machine and it's really hard to find experienced tool and die makers, they're pretty much snapped up right away."
Right now they need people with a mechanical background that they can train. "They need the right aptitude, people who are mechanical and have CAD ability. They have to be able to see it in their minds to design it."
And they have to get it right first time because it's a $10,000 product.
Northwest Fourslide is growing, but as its overhead is growing it is downsizing its manufacturing space. In the process it may well donate a surplus fourslide machine to OMIC so that apprentices can train on it.
So far, OMIC has not had to buy any tools or machines: the firms that make them are glad to give or loan them if it means they become the favorites of the apprentices.
Playing well together
Modeled after an advanced manufacturing district in Sheffield, England, OMIC will pair educational providers like Oregon Tech, Portland Community College, Portland State University and Oregon State University with industry leaders like the Boeing Company, to create and R&D center to advance the latest manufacturing techniques. It will also offer workforce training and apprenticeship programs.
The summit's theme was "Manufacturing Advancement: Make it Stick."
On the opening panel, State Senator Betsy Johnson made her usual, rousing appeal in support of the center. It is on land close to rail, river, road, the Portland International Airport and is an hour from Boeing Gresham. She implored the manufacturers in the audience to "make yourselves the go-to guys for your local elected folks." Two important parts of the OMIC story are that it is a collaboration between many types of organization, public and private, and that vaporous talk is not tolerated, only ideas in action.
Bill Gerry, program manager for Global Technology at Boeing has an office in Gresham, where many crucial aircraft parts are machined, and one at the still-quiet OMIC building. He said Boeing is always trying to build parts cheaper and quicker, but doing research in Gresham would interrupt that workflow and global supply chain of thousands of parts, delaying plane delivery.
"We've partnered with some really smart people, mainly at AMRC in Sheffield, but sometimes it's hard to get a plane load of engineers together to go over there. OMIC will be closer to home."
Strong manufacturing base
Gerry pointed out that aside from Sheffield and Scappoose, Boeing has 12 other research centers around the world specializing in different things, such as composites in the Netherlands and direct manufacturing in Germany.
One common theme was that engineers are constantly refining and improving manufacturing processes.
Adrian Allen, Sheffield-born and one of the founders of AMRC, is on his sixth visit to Oregon to spread the gospel of a strong manufacturing base. He showed how dire Sheffield was after Mrs. Thatcher's Conservative government closed the coalmines in the 1970s, and how the land AMRC was built on was a slag heap on the site of an old coke plant. "Sheffield is where they invented steel," he said, and its cutlers dominated the world until the 1980s. Then a generation of engineers was lost. "Technology stole more jobs than low labor rates," he stated. "Everything good begins with engineers, whether it's a baby scanner or a flat screen TV. But we need to breed and keep engineers happy, because we need a healthy industrial base."
Allen gave the example of how when the combine harvester came along, everyone making blades, such as scythes, had their livelihood threatened. But so did those who made the wooden scythe handles and whetstones and others down the supply chain.
Rocket science for beginners
"When someone invented the combine harvester, thousands of jobs were gone. So don't just buy a combine harvester, you have to make the damn combine." He said people in industry should stop debating facts with politicians and work with government. "We know there's a skill shortage, so stop talking and do something about it."
Allen said that Boeing was the big name brand without which the AMRC would never have taken off. He showed a video that showed dozens of Boeing planes, helicopters and rockets in action, designed to grab the imagination of young people.
In a side seminar called The Dynamics of Machining, Allen, who is an experienced machinist and has the eyebrow scars to prove it, told how long before the AMRC he and an academic pal, Keith Ridgway of the University of Sheffield, developed a tool for cutting titanium 18 times faster than anything Boeing had. They could not sell it because they were too small an outfit. "Boeing has thousands of spindles," Allen explained. Later he got the green light to set up the South Yorkshire Centre of Excellence (the acronym SYCOE was later dropped) "out of pity," he said.
Mummies do magic
Today, the AMRC has nine centers of excellence, 1,150 staff and takes on 250 apprentices every year. He claims $2 billion of investment has gone into the center. The latest marquee name is racing car maker McLaren, which will build its production car in a new factory nearby, a street car with a carbon fiber chassis. "The original mission was to be a catalyst," he said, and believes it can be repeated in Oregon, with other companies flocking to join Boeing in time.
As an example of problem solving prowess, he told how they used microphones and signal analysis to figure out a way to minimize chatter or the wavy lines in metal caused by excessive vibration of the tool bit. The bottom line was the machines could cut deeper and quicker, and thus make more parts at lower cost.
Relating it all back to a human scale, he concluded: "The best example of an engineer is a mother running a family," he said. "Because they have to create solutions all the time. Mummies do magic."
Time for a new president
Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership (OMEP) provides consultants to analyze industrial processes and suggest efficiencies. It offers other business expertise too, but mainly it is about making industry more efficient, and has a bias toward lean manufacturing.
OMEP, which ran the summit, announced its new president on Monday.
Current president Chris Scherer who retires this summer will be replaced by Aaron Fox in June. Fox previously worked for OMEP from 2004 to 2011 as a manufacturing and business consultant.
Fox has an engineering background, and was Director of OEM Product Development and Process Excellence for Welch Allyn, a global developer of life-saving medical diagnostics equipment.
Fox said the Sheffield location is the model for the other research centers Boeing is building around the world.
He said his goal is to see OMEP continue to support small and medium manufacturing businesses. "The federal government defines that as less than 500 employees, but the vast majority of companies in our state are significantly less than that. Manufacturing is super critical to the state's economy, and it creates good living wage jobs."
There are MEPs in every state. Oregon MEP is 50 percent federally funded, 15 percent Oregon funded and 35 percent fee for services that clients pay out of pocket, albeit at below market rate. "We have hundreds of rural manufacturing clients, and we subsidize them with the big clients."
OMEP consultants come in to a business and do shoulder-to-shoulder training. "We bend our services around a client's needs, we help them with their specific pain point."
That could be a maintenance issue, workflow issue or machine setup issues. "Then if that machine starts working efficiently it generates other challenges down the supply chains. So we work a lot on change management, which can be very uncomfortable for people. It's a holistic approach."
Fox's experience in medical devices taught him that manufacturing is "all about sound, capable process."
He says Michigan is a good state for MEP involvement. The state has had to reinvent itself as a modern manufacturing hub. Fox says it helps that they have a good relationship with their legislature.
Students from the Career and Technical Education Center (CTEC) in Salem came up on stage to praise their school projects and testify to the idea of manufacturing careers. Finding up-and-coming students to fill jobs as Oregon's manufacturing industry grows is just one of several of OMEP's initiatives to help small and medium-sized Oregon businesses.
His 15-year-old son Max was job shadowing his dad for the day. Max said the number one career option that grabs the attention of his peers is "video game design, cartoon design, anything that has anything to do with what everyone watches."
"In the past it was about 'Send you kids to four year college and get a degree,'" said his dad. "But the reality is, manufacturing jobs are a higher paying industry than most others, and opportunities are endless if they get the technical skill to do run the equipment."
Manufacturing is not a blue-collar world. "We need to make sure people understand this is high tech work, skilled work and good-paying work with an opportunity to grow in a career. We need to make sure kids know these are interesting jobs that have a gratifying career solving problems."
The Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership is a not-for-profit organization that helps Oregon manufacturers grow through innovation and respond to the challenges of competing in an increasingly global economy. One of 60 Manufacturing Extension Partnership resource organizations nationwide, OMEP receives state, federal and private funding to assist Oregon manufacturers in transforming the way they do business.