Product engineering needs to know what is producible. Process engineering needs to know process performance and capacity. Process operators need know the processes they supervise and how to recognize and react to important variations.
There is a long tradition of apprenticeships at all levels of manufacturing and engineering in support of aerospace and defense products. But there are some relatively new stressors on this product-process-operations collaboration:
- Product engineers are often distant from operations’ challenges and opportunities so designs sometimes fail to address producibility and normal variability.
- Incredible new processes and equipment are coming into commercial use that have “blown up” the process design books without replacement for the process engineers.
- Operations personnel own operations that are unfamiliar and maybe invisible in practice due to process speed or necessary personnel protections.
The demand for qualified engineers in manufacturing tech to embrace the next generation of industry challenges continues to outpace supply. Early career personnel represent an opportunity, which can support a framework to engage all career personnel in new tech.
Many industrial employers, including GE, have succeeded with rotational development programs to grow engineering experience by exposure to technical roles. Since 2018, though, GE Aviation supply chain has invested in a program targeted specifically at growing manufacturing engineering expertise. The Manufacturing Engineering Development Program (MEDP) combines rotations through complementary experiences with technical education, both internally curated and augmented by Tooling U-SME courses. Technical leaders in the shop identify areas in need of more talent, and the MEDP team recruits and places recent graduates into positions where they can thrive.
In parallel, to ensure sustainable tech expertise in manufacturing, GE Aviation has invested in establishing controlled title holder positions. This is a vital career framework to retain and grow the best technical teams long term: It creates a community, increases visibility and supports the collaboration of individuals with deep process knowledge within and between the manufacturing technologies.
I am glad to see a revival of operator training programs. We no longer need people who can manually manufacturing and “wring in” a personal pair of gauge blocks. But we do need people to be the intelligent interface between what is happening to the part in the machine with the process.
In Vermont, GE Aviation worked with Vermont Technical College to develop technologist and technician training programs for automation and inspection. We now plan to expand the program. And in Massachusetts, our manufacturing team established the RiverWorks Manufacturing Academy, where operators and engineers learn from a course catalog in a hands-on environment.
Having connection to the process and the expected outcomes along with the ability to troubleshoot the unexpected creates a sense of ownership, pride and job satisfaction. Operators fluent in the terminology of process and product quality are vital agents on the floor for their business.
While some are promising lights-out operations with robust and adaptable operations, I am skeptical we should be investing in that future outcome first.
I am a huge advocate for AI, deep learning and the promise of advanced systems technology. But the primary benefits of AI, deep learning and analytic tools for years to come will be to amplify the abilities of an informed and intelligent workforce.
Examples that will be helpful sooner rather than later might include the abilities to see and “feel” process forces and aberrations inside the machine, as well as to compare the machine’s current performance with peers and with a historical version of itself. In the right hands, tools like these will go a long way to establish adaptable processes with efficient machine utilization and maintenance.
Making operators and process designers better informed in real time, with a focus on making intelligent decisions with enhanced data, is the key to updating U.S. aerospace and defense manufacturing capabilities.