An old friend and several acquaintances found themselves adrift when a magazine closed. All being entrepreneurial, they started a  website and newsletter—RAM Review (Reliability, Availability, Maintenance). Old friend Jane Alexander is the editor. Not meaning she’s old, just that we’ve known each other for many years.

I met Bob Williamson 10 or 12 years ago mostly around discussions of ISO 55000 on asset management. He wrote the lead essay for a recent email newsletter on workforce. Now, I have to admit that the only part of manufacturing I never worked in was maintenance and  reliability. I did work with skilled trades when I was a sales engineer, though. I considered them geniuses for the way they could fix things. One of the points of Bob’s essay is taking care of things before they break and need help.

The main workforce discussion in media concerns remote or hybrid work. Many engineering roles can be performed remotely. Many roles within manufacturing and production must be performed on site. With the current and projected future labor shortage, I like his closing paragraph except for the put down on current operators. I knew plenty who cared for their machine or process. Of course, many didn’t. Most likely a management failure. But cross-training people to be at least to some degree both competent operators and first-line RAM people seems to me to be a winning strategy. I’ve reprinted most of Bob’s essay below. You can read it on their website.

For many manufacturers, returning to traditional ways of work simply will not be an option. Something must change if they are to attract, hire, and retain a capable workforce. Therefore, I believe technology and desperately willing top-management teams will also help alter work cultures on factory floors. Respondents to the Manufacturing Alliance/Aon survey suggested offering “flexible working hours, compressed work weeks, split shifts, shift swapping, and part-time positions.”  Use of such enticements with plant-floor workforces would look very different than use among the carpet dwellers in front offices.

We have another option, of course: Technology can automate our manufacturing processes, and much of it is far more affordable than it was a decade ago. In fact, given the rising cost of labor over the past decade, with increasing healthcare-cost burdens and skills shortages, many businesses have already automated some of their labor-intensive processes. The times we are in call for—make that scream for—large-scale automation. Yet, while process automation can be easier for large, deep-pocketed companies than for the smalls, it’s still a huge challenge.

There are four big hurdles to be overcome when automating manufacturing processes: availability, installation, sustainable reliability, and work-culture change. And remember, skills and labor shortages are widespread in these post-pandemic times. Moreover, despite the supply chain’s efforts to heal and keep up, manufacturers of automation technologies aren’t immune to the production-barrier ills that others face these days.

To repeat: RAM professionals are on manufacturing’s front line. Skill shortages may be affecting our ranks, but there are recruiting and training efforts underway in many companies to remedy the situation. In addition, we have technologies for carrying out data collection, analysis, and problem-solving somewhat remotely. However, the boots-on-the-ground parts of reliability and maintenance will not be virtual or remote.

So, consider this option: Recruit and train displaced production workers to wear some RAM “boots.”  They’ll be familiar with industrial environments and the importance of plant equipment. Then, let’s train our current production workers to care more for their machines than they did in the past, and, in the process, become the eyes and ears for reliability, availability, and maintenance improvement.TRR

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