Robot growing pains: Two US factories show tensions of going digital

When Sandy Vierling took a job at a new robotic factory, her company built a few kilometers from an older factory where she was manufacturing automobile exhaust systems she went through. future of manufacturing in the United States.

She did not like it at all.

The new Faurecia SA plant, nicknamed Columbus South to distinguish it from the old Gladstone plant, flickers cleanly and the physical work is lighter. But the 57-year-old man found that his new job had long hours and was monotonous – loading parts onto conveyors that powered robots all day. She also missed the interaction with her colleagues that she had at Gladstone.

Other workers at the new factory complain about not being able to fix the machines during jam. The technicians start to do that.

"I was stressed all the time," she said.

President Donald Trump placed manufacturing jobs in the United States at the center of his economic and trade agenda. But when jobs come in, as is the case here in southern Indiana, many factory workers are unprepared for them and employers are struggling to hire people with the necessary skills.

American manufacturing job openings are nearly 15 years and factories are hiring workers at the highest level since 2014, with many employers saying the most difficult jobs to fill are those requiring technical skills .

In 2000, more than half of manufacturing workers in the United States had only high school or less, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today, 57% of manufacturing workers have received technical training at school, a college or university diploma, and nearly a third of workers have a bachelor's degree or a higher diploma, compared to 22% in 2000.

Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that digitization sweeping the economy is forcing employers to look for a different mix of workers – and paying more in some cases for workers with technical skills.

A new study from Muro found that people with the highest numerical skills saw their average salary increase by 2% per year since 2010, while the wages of medium-skilled people increased by 1.4% and those at the bottom of 1.6%.


The skill mismatch is played out in Faurecia's factories in Columbus.

The company's former Gladstone factory has 500 production workers and only a handful of robots. The new plant, Columbus South, has about 400 workers and about 100 robots, including 30 automated guided vehicles that carry materials instead of motor tugs. Both plants manufacture exhaust systems.

Faurecia invested $ 64 million in its new plant and invited skilled workers from the old factory to apply for jobs in the new plant. Many workers, including Vierling, were attracted to higher wages. She saw her salary go from $ 16.65 an hour to $ 18.80 in Columbus South. About 150 made the move, according to the union representing workers in both facilities, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

There is no plan to close the old factory, but rather to introduce automation in several phases.

But some said no to the opportunity.

Christina Teltow says she has never considered it. She is 42 years old and has spent 22 years in Gladstone. She was recently promoted, but previously worked as a "hole leader", one of the best jobs that a person with a high school diploma can reach at the factory. This work includes monitoring workers' schedules and checking the quality of parts.

The same job at Columbus South requires 16 hours of local technical college credit in business administration as well as learning how to use computers to track production and schedules.

"Here I arrive and work on machines," she said. "In the South, it's totally different – everything is robot."

The company says that one of the reasons the new plant needs a lot of robots is because it produces a different type of product. Gladstone mainly manufactures exhaust systems for light vehicles, while Columbus South is dedicated to much more robust exhaust systems used mainly on larger trucks. A worker can easily lift most parts to Gladstone, while some parts in Columbus South weigh up to 260 pounds.

Without robots, the new plant would need a lot more workers just to get things moving, the managers said.

Of course, robots have been in factories for decades. The difference now is that the machines are interconnected in networks that allow more monitoring and control. In Columbus South, managers and engineers move with iPads that allow them to monitor real-time production levels, and even less-skilled workers need to know the basics of using scrollable screens and inputting Datas.

Paving the way to the factory, director Mike Galarno shows off one of the long production lines dotted with robots to a large video screen that tracks real-time production.

In the old factory, every part of the operation looked like an island. If a problem arose, the people working there could solve the problem without ever attracting the attention of the managers, he said.

"Here, these are all data – and everyone is watching and reacting," he said.

This type of work requires workers with skills normally present in high technology, not in auto parts plants. Attracting these workers to Columbus – and keeping them – posed another challenge.

One of the first employees hired for Columbus South last year was Chase Chapman, a mathematician and data management specialist who was finishing a five-year stay in the Navy. The company has transferred Mr. Chapman and his young family from Florida, so that he can become the head of the data analysis of the factory – a position that does not exist at Gladstone nor in any other factory Faurecia exhaust systems.

He left in April after only eight months, citing the desire to be closer to his extended family.

The position is now empty for months while the company is trying to recruit someone again.

Another problem appeared after the commissioning of the new plant. As a start-up – with a lot of potential for technical problems in its highly automated systems – many workers at the new plant work 12 hours a day, often more than five days a week.

These long hours have focused on workers like Vierling. "I made all that money, but I did not have the time to spend it," she said.

Gladstone workers had to stay at the new factory one year before applying for a transfer. Last month, Vierling returned to his former workplace. She gave up most of the $ 2 increase the hour she had to move but did not regret it.

"I have the impression of being returned home," she said.

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