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JOB ORDERS: Mark Thomas, French's manufacturing director, says technology is accelerating production and replacing some undesirable jobs.
SBJ photo by Wes Hamilton
JOB ORDERS: Mark Thomas, French's manufacturing director, says technology is accelerating production and replacing some undesirable jobs.

Manufacturing Outlook: Automation takes center stage

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Robots, electronic food inspectors and automated X-ray machines are doing everyday work at the French’s plant in Springfield.

“It’s high-speed production – 26 million cases of product per year. So we have to rely on automation to achieve those growth targets,” French’s Manufacturing Director Mark Thomas said during a Dec. 8 panel discussion at the Manufacturing Outlook conference.

The food and condiment factory, purchased this year by McCormick & Co. Inc., employs sophisticated electronics to fill physically demanding or monotonous jobs – especially in this tight job market.

French’s is not alone. Officials at John Deere Reman, Digital Monitoring Products Inc. and L&W Industries say they also are using automation to replace dangerous or unfavorable jobs in their Springfield plants making everything from security systems and hot sauce to parts for tractors and railroads.

“Things like palletizing – we use robots to do that,” added Thomas, one of four panelists during the luncheon at University Plaza Convention Center. “It’s all heavy, back-lifting work, which a robot could do effortless, but for a person to do it’s pretty bad ergonomics.”

Workforce challenges and international trade also were on the minds of those at the event hosted by Springfield Business Development Corp.

“We’re at a 17-year low for unemployment, and that’s severely constraining the opportunity to bring labor into the manufacturing business,” said John Deere Reman General Manager Jena Holtberg-Benge, referring to the 4.1 percent U.S. unemployment rate.

In the Springfield metropolitan statistical area, the unemployment rate dropped a full point to 1.9 percent in October, compared with a year ago, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Our labor pool has shrunk significantly,” Holtberg-Benge said. “About 5 million people have left the industry since 2009.”

The jobs market puts a burden on what Holtberg-Benge sees as a positive agricultural outlook. She and other leaders at Deere & Co. (NYSE: DE) track everything from crop yields to oil prices.

“A lot of those indicators are either stabilizing or improving right now,” she said. “And all of that is generating some optimism in our business, in manufacturing specifically. We’re starting to see a 5 to 10 percent lift in our industry … and that’s happening not only in the U.S. but globally, as well.”

Because of the changing labor force and advancements in technology, the panelists agreed many, but not all, tasks can be automated.

“I don’t see a day when there’s going to be robots and drones where a plant is fully automated,” said Jenny Carr, president of L&W Industries, which manufactures signal products for the railroad and transit industry. “I think it’s trying to find the right blend. It’s a matter of finding automation where people don’t want to do the job or it’s not safe.”

The new technology has opened the door to increased production volumes in the French’s plant, Thomas said, allowing its parent company in recent years to consolidate all of its factories to Springfield. Even with the automation and this year’s McCormick buyout, he said head count at the local factory has increased to about 300 from 260.

Changes in the way things are made and the skills needed in a factory also are a result of the changing types of products consumers are buying, said Mark Hillenburg, the executive director of marketing for Digital Monitoring Products Inc. For example, DMP has transitioned from making security systems controlled with keypads to systems mostly operated through mobile applications.

“We used to have a dozen to 15 people who were on a line snapping together key pads all day,” he said. “We still have that, not to that extent, but we have 20 software developers who are creating Android and iOS apps in the engineering area. It’s not what you would necessarily think about manufacturing, but it supports the overall hardware and the rest of the system that we sell. … So those jobs have shifted to different types of jobs.”

With an ever-present need for skilled workers, the manufacturers have found partnerships with local colleges effectively promote manufacturing careers and find qualified interns.

“You can make a pretty good career out of welding and also some of the other skills like maintenance. That’s an area where I think there’s a shortage of people who know how to troubleshoot when a machine goes down,” Carr said of her plant’s railroad signage production work. “You have to have problem solvers.”

Following the buyout, French’s is beginning to benefit from McCormick’s international recruitment offices, Thomas said.

“Locally, we have sponsored people as apprentices, using the (Ozarks Technical Community College) program here in Springfield,” he said. “We do see a bit of a shortage attracting mechanics from the street, so we’re breeding our own so to speak and we’ve been pretty successful at that.”

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