Walking the floor at ABB’s industrial electric motor plant in Fort Smith, Johnny McKusker remembers an old advertising tag line and applies it to his industry.
“This isn’t your father’s factory floor.”
Indeed, the vibe on ABB’s bright, manufacturing floor feels almost more high-tech than traditional factory conjuring images of dark, dirty furnaces — a stigma that lingers still in the public consciousness. McKusker, vice president for operations, and Jason Green, vice president for human resources, and their colleagues at ABB’s division headquarters in Fort Smith are doing their best to help educate students throughout the city and western Arkansas that their post-high school graduation options may entail more than they realized. ABB offers high paying, rewarding careers that help shatter pre-conceived notions about a career in manufacturing.
“We’re really trying to change the conversation about career and technical education,” Green said. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but with an aging workforce and different technology in our operations, there’s a need to create a pipeline of technical talent.”
ABB is working with the local university and 22 public K-12 school districts to do just that. Through its youth apprenticeship program, ABB brings in high-school juniors and seniors to work at the Fort Smith plant and complement classroom training in advanced manufacturing received through the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS) and the local school districts.
And ABB works with other local institutions, such as Arkansas Tech University-Ozark, to help raise the profile of career and technical education and training in that community as well.
Students participating in the youth apprenticeship program, selected through a competitive process, are exposed to the advanced manufacturing technology on display at the Fort Smith plant such as digital simulation and advanced robotics. Teaching opportunities include augmented reality (AR), a tool which entails the digital overlay of processes onto a physical environment. As McKusker understates, “Very modern, digital capabilities.”
McKusker and his team in the Fort Smith plant host students, teachers and parents for tours of the facility throughout the year. Roughly 2,000 area students tour the facility each year. McKusker said the “wow factor” always plays a role.
“Before each tour, I ask students to share their expectations of a factory floor before we go in and then afterwards, to share their impressions. They’ll tell me things like hot, dirty or noisy before the tour. After each tour, it’s really amazing to see how engaged they were. They didn’t expect to see how bright and clean it was, to see things like the advanced robotics and how the employees were so different from their preconceived notions of factory workers.
“And that impact isn’t lost on the parents.”
ABB tries to attract students whose interests and aptitude align with STEM education. A comfort level with tech is required for a career in advanced manufacturing, and some basic coding knowledge is helpful, McKusker noted. One former ABB student apprentice is working 20 hours a week with full benefits and tuition reimbursement while attending UAFS.
“This isn’t a program for those that can’t or won’t go to college,” Green said. “This is a challenging program that ensures they graduate high school with skills that make them immediately employable. It also doesn’t exclude the possibility of attending college after high school where they would have the ability to develop additional skills and earn a degree or industry-recognized certifications.”
And in addition to 100 percent tuition reimbursement for employees looking to supplement their education or training to move up the ladder, ABB continuously retrains its current employees to obtain new skills. Because after all, technology moves fast, and industry leaders like ABB must keep up.
“The pace of change the last five years compared to the last 25 years is so fast,” Green said. “We really have to constantly ask ourselves what we’re doing to be ready for the next round of changes.”
A plant tour today likely won’t remotely resemble what tours look like a year from now, McKusker added. Operations at the Fort Smith plant, which employs roughly 1,250, have undergone a digital transformation in recent years. In addition to the advanced robotics and augmented reality on display at the facility, ABB has added virtual manufacturing lines through a simulation program called Flex Sim, which enables users to test new work cells or even entire production lines virtually as opposed to building and then testing new prototypes. Different configurations can be tested in seconds with sometimes dramatic results. Simulations can show how lead times could be dropped from weeks and in some cases, even months, to days.
ABB is a global leader in industrial robotics, and eight new robots recently were installed at the Fort Smith plant to handle motor windings and painting. The facility also added automated guided vehicles (AGVs) to further streamline production. Plus, new Power BI dashboards enable the Fort Smith operations group to create 60 live dashboards providing data in an intuitive, visual format, eliminating hours of report running and fragmenting.
ABB’s use of augmented reality affording users the chance to see digital overlays has greatly reduced the training curve and improved the quality and safety of plant processes. AR also enables ABB to significantly speed up employee training.
Ultimately, Green said, it’s about making manufacturing attractive again. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to offer technology like augmented reality and advanced robotics, not to mention a fast track to a fulfilling, high-paying career.
“When we can get students behind our walls, they see a bright, clean and climate-controlled environment. They see people working with state-of-the-art technology and equipment, making high-quality products, right here in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s essential for manufacturers to make the sector a viable career choice, regardless of whether a young person intends to go to college or not.”
Green stressed that doing so isn’t easy. An aging workforce, changing skill sets, traditional low unemployment and that lingering stigma can make attracting new blood to the industry a tough chore. But by partnering with our local K-12 school systems, university and Chamber of Commerce to rethink career and technical education and expanding outreach to students as young as middle school, he thinks the narrative can be changed. And there’s more motivation to changing it — the economic development component.
“Companies looking to relocate look at a local workforce and communities that have established a pipeline of skilled talent,” Green said. “A pipeline of technically skilled talent makes sure your existing employers have what they need but also makes a community more attractive as a possible destination for new companies.”