Fab Lab And The New Collar Worker
Looking to emulate the successful digital fabrication internship at advanced manufacturing service provider Potomac Photonics, Inc. [Baltimore, MD], many community colleges, fab labs, maker spaces and innovation centers have asked me to help develop curriculum. The first marketing rule is to develop products and services that meet complete customer need, and so it made sense to survey manufacturers who, after all, are the ultimate customer for workforce training program graduates. I wanted to be sure we were not developing a product in a vacuum and to learn exactly which skills we needed to include in the curriculum. With partial funding from Verizon, I embarked on a research project interviewing 200 companies that ranged in size from startups to Fortune 10 multinationals.
I was most interested in the skills needed for jobs as operators and technicians, as that seems to be where the biggest skills gap lies.
As with all market research, I was open-minded, not knowing what to expect from the responses. Perhaps special coding, operating innovative technologies, advanced math? No, 95% of the 200 companies interviewed immediately need employees with problem-solving skills. The reasons were interconnected.
Technology is changing so fast, that knowing how to operate or repair one type of machine is a skill that may only be of value for a short period of time. Employers want people who are flexible enough to jump onboard when new technologies are introduced and seamlessly move to next-generation tools. As the factory floor evolves, there is less historical experience among the workers; staff who have worked with subtractive technologies are often no help when the latest 3D Printer is down. Instead, the New Collar Workforce must experiment and try out ideas. When that fails they need the digital skills to search the Internet for tips, participate in online forums and watch YouTube videos to find solutions to their problems. Additive manufacturing is particularly problematic. At this stage in its development, 3D Printing can be less reliable than other forms of subtractive manufacturing and refine a design that prints repeatably is often a trial and error process. Until we have the Star Trek Replicator, problem-solving 3D printer operation is a valued skill.Interestingly, the rise of robotics and automation on the factory floor is also driving the need for humans who can problem-solve. One respondent pointed out that robots may be drilling holes or turning screws, but they are not yet solving problems on their own. As AI improves that will change, but in the era of Co-Bots, humans will be designing, programming, and repairing their mechanical co-workers to solve challenges in the manufacturing process.
It is true that “necessity is the mother of invention” and needing to solve a problem is more often than not the impetus for innovation.
While technologies are tools to solve problems, it is the human capacity to wonder, imagine, explore and create that drives innovation. LEAN programs being implemented by industry giants like GE to smaller companies like New England jewelry manufacturer E. A. Dion especially foster problem-solving. Continuous improvement that is led by workers’ initiative has far more impact than dictates sent down from management. Every factory tour I’ve attended in the New England Lean Consortiumprogram attests to this phenomenon; people are engaged and show real pride in their work when they are part of the problem-solving process. Travis Steffens, CEO of R Investments, a social impact real estate development company, sums it up best: “People have to feel contribution and purpose at work, and when it becomes their own idea, then the real magic happens.”
The New Collar Workforce, recently published by Photonics Media Press, will give you more detail on the complete study and suggestions for practical programs to create your own problem-solving team!