Tackling the talent issue.

River Horse DC
16 Minutes

As the digital transformation of the supply chain sweeps across GE Appliances’ (GEA) operations, Collie Crawford has the distinction of being the first graduate of the company’s new Industry 4.0 Development Program, or I4DP.

The two-year program was created in 2019 to address a growing business need – a stable of technical engineering talent with the depth and breadth of Industry 4.0 skills that can support GEA’s smart factories.

These include technical capabilities and knowledge that weren’t taught when many of today’s engineers were in school, but that are required to keep up with the evolution of the supply chain. “To help us bring in and sustain much more advanced, automated equipment we need to be competitive, we need people who understand it and can ensure it’s designed correctly to fit into our digital environment,” said Trent Ingrim, senior director – advanced manufacturing/Industry 4.0 for GE Appliances.  

Collie Crawford, the first graduate of GE Appliances’ Industry 4.0 Development Program, talks through the operator station interface with other engineers in the program.

Developing talent in-house

While leading companies have traditionally relied on third parties, like universities and colleges, to train engineering talent, they are now recognizing that they need to invest in internal education and training programs to keep pace with the rapid changes in supply chains. During a 2019 Trustbelt conference speech in Louisville, President and CEO Kevin Nolan encouraged listeners to embrace their own valley, arguing that our workforce development challenges aren’t going to be solved by Silicon Valley or someone else.

In the Ohio Valley, where GE Appliances is headquartered, the company is creating the Industry 4.0 talent pipeline to help solve the skills gap and ensure we have the engineering talent we need to support the $1 billion of investments we’ve made in our U.S. plants and distribution centers over the last five years. “When we’re tripling the number of robots we’re launching in a year, the ability to support that volume is pretty difficult unless we invest in our people,” said Chad Toney, executive director – advanced manufacturing.

So the quest began to find technical engineering candidates – electrical, computer science and mechanical or graduates of mechatronic programs –  and take them through four hands-on rotations that include highly-specialized, in-class training in industrial controls, robotics, testing and data visualization. The format of the program helps engineers see how systems work together and elevates their problem-solving skills. “Ideally I’m looking for people with the right technical background, have ties to the communities near our plants and want to grow their careers with us,” said Ingrim.

With most of his co-op and prior work experience in controls, Collie Crawford, our first graduate, was intrigued by the Industry 4.0 Development Program job posting and learning more in the other three areas. “I thought it was too good to pass up, and a chance to work for a larger company,” he said.

The four rotations provide the skillsets for today’s modern supply chain engineering roles.

  1. Industrial Controls – The machinery in today’s modern plants are complex with industrial and electrical controls that need to be programmed from human machine interfaces (HMIs) or touch screens, PLCs or program logic controllers that actually make the machine work. In addition, there are many safety controls, such as light curtains and area scanners, to ensure nothing comes in contact with the operator that would pose a safety hazard while the equipment is operating. During this rotation, program members participate in original equipment manufacturer (OEM) design reviews and run offs to learn how to ensure the equipment is compatible with GEA’s digital plant environment.
  2. Robotics – The rotation after industrial controls is robotics. Participants learn to incorporate the use of robots and other types of controls to work with the equipment – including the use of vision or cameras to drive expanded flexibility and capabilities in the factories.
  3. Test group – The third rotation is focused on testing with a twist from the past. The GEA team decided it would be a strategic advantage to create software and programming in house for test systems and equipment, which has been a “resounding success” with first pass yields up as much as 10%. The improved data is being reported or fed into the company’s Brilliant Factory data visualization system. To finish out the rotation, participants develop competencies in high-level programming and database use.
  4. Brilliant Factory – In the fourth and final rotation, participants continue to develop and refine GEA’s factory data visualization tool – Brilliant Factory – bringing new features to the platform on a weekly basis.

“After completing the program, we want them to understand how a smart, interconnected factory works, and identify what they like most and feel the strongest about as they look for their first assignment off program,” said Ingrim.

Mentoring and coaching is a big part of the experience too. “I loved learning from the engineers during my rotations and finding new applications and ways to do things,” said Crawford. “Patrick Nally, the engineering manager for controls, has really good automotive and high-volume manufacturing experience. Hakim Sultanov, advanced manufacturing engineer, helped me learn about machine vision and how you properly implement vision or cameras on a plant floor. There are so many considerations on how to make it work that you can’t learn in a class.”

Today there are four people in the program, but the goal is to triple that number. “A lot of younger people want to grow their careers quickly,” said Ingrim. “When they realize they’re going to gain a lot of experience and seven or eight advanced certifications in just two years, they get excited about the program.” The next I4DP participants will be hired to support new plant investment programs outside of Louisville.

“Collie has been fantastic,” said Ingrim. “His structured and logical approach to the work is a credit to him – plus he can definitely see the connections between systems.” Collie also went above and beyond to help fellow program members who followed in his footsteps. “My master’s degree is in engineering management, so helping others is what it’s all about,” Crawford said. “I created guides and formalized processes so those who came behind me would have additional resources to be successful.”

As Collie graduates, he’s taking a controls engineering position in dishwasher manufacturing and hitting the ground running. He went on third shift last week to help problem solve on the new dishwasher wire rack line. The Dish team was thrilled with his report out, progress and the logical thought process he brings to the team.

“As the new person it’s great to be able to bring up issues, and the team be open to my suggestions and making changes,” said Crawford. “The program has made me a better automation engineer, prepared to solve broad problems within the plant.”

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