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The Transparent Factory—A Case for Attracting a New Generation of Skilled Workers #03 OE Newsletter

More than ten years ago, Volkwsagen launched a transparent factory in downtown Dresden. Its “handmade” Phaeton luxury sedan is assembled there. In the transparent factory, the walls are glass, the lighting a combination of indirect and natural light from skylights.

The workers wear white. The factory is quiet, with parts delivered to work stations by robotic sleds gliding around courtesy of a magnetic guidance system embedded in the Canadian maple floor. The work stations are powered through the floor by induction, and “smart tools” track every nut, bolt, and screw. Chassis make one lap around the factory on a conveyor system that revolves seamlessly on a fish-scale surface below the maple flooring. Then, they float overhead via a suspension system that is adjustable to each worker’s height.

In a city known for its historic buildings, this 300,000-square-foot plant demonstrates that manufacturing can be fascinating and elegant. Customers and tourists show up daily to watch cars being assembled, hang out, and pick up their cars when ready.

As to “those who work in glass houses”… well, they look pretty cool for one thing. A telling comment from one online viewer reads, “I never wanted to work at a factory, until I saw this place.”

Where are the skilled workers?

For the most part, kids don’t think about manufacturing jobs as a good—or an interesting or a cool—career choice. The perception overall is one of dark dirty buildings, monotonous work, low wages, job instability, and lack of career opportunity.

And while those perceptions may be a stereotype, they have not been entirely wrong. Nevertheless, manufacturing ain’t what it used to be, in some really interesting and high-tech ways. About 75% of executives surveyed in an Industry Week C-suite poll last fall think manufacturing is an attractive industry that holds productive and interesting career paths. But almost 90% of those same execs believe that manufacturers have not done a good job of attracting young people.

The National Association of Manufacturers just released its latest position paper, A Growth Agenda: Four Goals for a Manufacturing Resurgence in America.

Goal #4 states: Manufacturers in the U.S. will have access to the workforce that the 21st-century economy demands.

“To remain competitive, the United States must develop a skilled workforce that includes the best talent from inside and outside our country. To attract and retain workers of all skill levels from abroad, policymakers should enact comprehensive immigration reform and address educational deficits to meet manufacturers’ workforce needs.”

More and more, factory owners can’t find enough skilled workers. And this focus on attracting skilled labor from abroad and boosting STEM education here at home has been a mantra among manufacturers concerned about the future of their industry as the baby-boomers retire. But education and immigration initiatives are not the whole picture. Not enough bright kids in the U.S. are enthused about or encouraged to consider manufacturing as a viable career option.

Attracting a new generation of employees

As executives here know, we need to do more than work to “attract the best and brightest to the United States.” What about improving manufacturing’s image here overall, and better promoting what manufacturing has to offer for students here at home as well?

Outreach initiatives are certainly happening.

“The Institutes will bring together industry, universities and community colleges, federal agencies, and our states to accelerate innovation by investing in industrially-relevant manufacturing technologies with broad applications to bridge the gap between basic research and product development, provide assets to help companies—particularly small manufacturers—access cutting-edge capabilities and equipment, and create an unparalleled environment to educate and train students and workers in advanced manufacturing skills.” (emphasis added)

The pilot initiative, started just a few months ago in Youngstown, Ohio, is already beginning to have an impact.

  • Witness the efforts of individual manufacturers, such as Schneider Electric. They assign young workers with college backgrounds to jobs in various parts of the organization early in their careers, to accelerate their development and expose them to manufacturing operations. That exposure alone has a positive impact, with more hires choosing a career path in manufacturing.
  • Witness also, the impact that a clean, lean environment can make on improving the image of manufacturing overall, as with the transparent factory.

Operational excellence and lean thinking can make a difference in quality of work life—not only in the physical workplace environment, but by making a reality of the fundamental principle that workers are respected and valued for their problem-solving skills, for their creativity, for their ability to work together in sophisticated systems and operations.

We can’t all design and build the super-hip environment of the transparent factory. But lean efforts can help promote the attractiveness of your business, and manufacturing in general, to a new generation.


Ask the consultants

Q. How can we start a gemba walk process in our organization?

A. The gemba walk is all about embedding lean changes systemically in the workplace. This key element in sustaining improvement is a structured process that involves company leaders directly in supporting and encouraging process standardization. Getting started with gemba walks can seem overwhelming. For key points and tips on planning, launching, and sustaining the process, download our Gemba Walk White Paper.

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