Okuma’s GENOS series machining center is designed with a specific focus on operator ergonomics. PHOTO courtesy Okuma.
We’ve all noticed the many ‘help wanted’ ads throughout our communities, even within machine shops. But the truth is, even before COVID-19 disrupted the manufacturing industry, manufacturers were struggling to fill open positions.
I ran across a stat reported by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute stating half of the 2.4 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S. that were open in 2018 could remain unfilled through 2028. Three years and one pandemic later, those predictions feel like they are close to spot on.
It begs the question, why?
The overall perception of manufacturing
We hear it all the time in conversations with our colleagues and shop owners around the country, part of the problem is finding people with the right skill sets and manufacturing background. But some would argue that it’s more about how manufacturing jobs are viewed by the public. In a fast-paced, high-technology-driven society, manufacturing seems out-of-date, unexciting, and even a little dirty. Of course, for all of us in this industry, we know this couldn’t be further from the truth – and we must work to change this overall perception for the next generation.
Today’s high-tech manufacturing equipment are the horses that drive production. Could it also be that, with the right technologies, interfaces, support, and messaging, these same machines can also help attract and retain A-list talent? Okuma believes the answer is yes!
New equipment shattering old perceptions
As previously stated, manufacturing may have an image problem. Unfortunately, this directly affects job shops’ ability to recruit and retain quality talent. The traditional view of manufacturing – as being non-skilled, manual, repetitive, and marginally challenging – is turning away the next generation of operators. But with the heightened inclusion of automation and robotic systems, cloud-enabled digital technologies supported by the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), environmental-friendly design builds, and even social media influencers changing the narrative, the machining industry is primed to attract top talent.
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The new capabilities are reflected in modern machine tools and supporting equipment that not only enhance productivity, consistency, and quality, but also help stimulate, protect, and reward those who operate them. From lathes and machining centers to grinders and lasers, today’s machine tools are designed to provide key benefits to the employee as well as the employer.
Controls that drive better employee engagement
More and more, equipment control panels are beginning to take on the look and feel of fast-paced video games. Highly interactive and data-rich controls like those shown below keep the operator more informed and engaged. In doing so, this interactivity recasts their daily role as a problem-solving data analyst actively seeking to improve the machining process and the shop’s profitability.
Control interfaces like those found in Okuma’s OSP suite are also highly configurable. Each user can customize the operation panel, adding their favorite helpful applications, shortcuts, and common tasks to suit his or her preference and skill level. A variety of available OSP apps enable operators to add customized on-screen shortcuts, user settings, maintenance reminders, and displays. Beyond improving operator performance, this helps cultivate a sense of ownership in the machine, the cutting process, and the company.
Reducing physical stress
Even in job shop environments where injury rates are relatively low, the physical demands of the job, if done improperly, could contribute to chronic pain, absenteeism, and even employee turnover. By investing in equipment that is more ergonomically designed, employers can reduce some of these effects.
For example, Okuma’s GENOS series machining center is designed with a specific focus on operator ergonomics. The automatic tool changer (ATC) access window is located on the front side of the machine, allowing operators to change tools safely and easily. Compared to other models that require loading tools through the spindle, the GENOS’s ATC access window significantly reduces repetitive motion and stress to the operator’s lower back, neck, and shoulders.
Other Okuma machine tools offer articulating control panels that swivel or swing in and out to provide better accessibility. We’ve also invested significant research and resources in developing machines with greater mass and technologies to dampen machine vibrations, which has enabled manufacturers to effectively reduce noise levels in a shop environment. Customizable LED lighting kits provide better illumination of the work area and reduce eye strain.
Ergonomic improvements like these can also have a positive effect on how employees view their jobs, especially when employees notice the company is putting forth its best efforts to ensure their health, safety, and comfort.
Manufacturing equipment must do more than manufacture
Employees, both current and future, have made it clear they want to work and are willing to work hard, provided they feel meaningfully engaged and know that the business is committed to their all-encompassing personal and professional well-being. Obviously, creating a positive working environment and corporate culture requires more than a better machine tool. But advanced manufacturing equipment – which stimulates worker engagement, provides ownership of the process, and is thoughtfully and ergonomically designed – has an important role to play.
This TECH TIP is offered by Brandon Glenn of Okuma