Automation and the Training Imperative: how one manufacturer introduced automation and successfully reskilled their workforce

In June 2001, Raufoss Technology Canada introduced semi-automated equipment to their Montreal plant, which specializes in the development and production of high-quality aluminum parts. Over the years, continued investment in new equipment and technological processes has transformed their plant and introduced the need for qualified automated operators to keep their plant operational. Faced with this, Raufoss implemented a creative solution to expand their employees’ skills and continue taking advantage of new technology with a CEGEP (General and Vocational College) certificate program in automation offered by Collège Lionel Groulx of Ste-Thérèse. We sat down with Lee Thibodeau, Operations and Human Resources Manager at Raufoss Technology Canada to explore the facets of the program and how it alleviated their training challenge.

Tell me about the technology in your plant.

At our Montreal manufacturing plant, we have foundry robots and fine automation robotics, programmable logic controller (PLC) driven equipment and process intelligent equipment such as forming presses, heat treatment ovens, part locators, high-speed computer numerical control (CNC) machining centres and semi-automated assembly cells.

Everything is managed internally. Although there’s a steep learning curve for the whole team, including the staff involved in the installation process, keeping the installation and management of the equipment internal helps our technicians learn how the equipment works with our production context in mind. As support, we have project engineers to lead and have two very gifted Robotics Technicians who program the equipment.

There is an argument that automation and robotics will always need to be guided by human intelligence, that there are key human capabilities that will always be necessary. Do you agree with this?

Entirely! A robot will go as far as it is programmed. It cannot solve problems, make decisions or be creative. It doesn’t provide insight on how to be more productive or efficient. Although consistent and reliable, automation and robotics need to be analyzed and developed with an eye towards continuous improvement. At Raufoss, it’s a priority to optimize our resources and stay at the forefront of our industry — and for that, we need to tap into human intelligence.

In that context, then, how did you plan to staff the new roles created in your organization when the installation of this new equipment was initially proposed?

Our plants in Norway and China have similar equipment installed and the operator’s profiles are the same across these locations. Operators need to have strengths in abstract 3D vision, mathematical skills for the basis of robot programs, strong problem-solving skills and good stress management. Plus, they need to have completed a post-secondary technical training in CNC programming, electro mechanics or the skilled trades.

Our plants in China and Mexico are able to find skilled technicians with automation and high-volume production experience because the automotive manufacturing industry is so strong in those countries. So, initially we thought we could find technicians with similar skill sets in our labour market by targeting industrial technicians.

What were the challenges?

Most of the technicians on the market were from the service industry and not accustomed to a high production environment. We just couldn’t find competent and qualified automated operators that could operate the equipment while helping troubleshoot and improve our processes.

How did you address this challenge?

We realigned our recruitment strategies to target operators in high-volume industries that worked with strict norms and had some automation knowledge. We then created the automation program with a local CEGEP to be able to develop the missing competencies in our internal operators who had the potential to learn and an interest in mastering automation and robotics.

What are the intricacies around the program in partnership with Collège Lionel Groulx of Ste-Thérèse?

Interested internal employees apply to the CEGEP program as they would externally. Once admitted, employees train at the plant and CEGEP in both theoretical classes and practical labs. For labs held at our plant, we coordinate with production to make equipment available for practice. Employees are real students, completing homework and taking exams throughout the program, which is offered on a part-time basis (4 to 8 hours a week) over a 4-month period.

Once the program is completed, employees receive 200 hours of on-the-job coaching with a qualified operator. The CEGEP performs the final evaluation and — if successful — Raufoss reimburses the employee’s admission fees.

Although consistent and reliable, automation and robotics need to be analyzed and developed with an eye towards continuous improvement.

What has been the response to this program?

From the beginning of our pilot project in 2005, there has been strong interest in the program. It provides our employees with a valuable opportunity for personal development in an accessible platform. Because it’s part-time and primarily completed at the plant, the program also supports a good work-life balance.

Plus, our employees get to put their expanded skill set to work right away — taking on increased job responsibilities and gaining access to higher wages. The program has even encouraged some employees to continue their education externally to eventually take on other positions in the organization.

Has it helped with retention?

Yes. We have trained over 25 employees and retained 80% of them. Some of the employees we’ve trained have grown into team leaders and maintenance electro mechanics within our organization.

It was crucial to me that the program help employees develop transferable skills. I think it has increased our employees’ sense of belonging and loyalty to the company and also reinforced our dedication to the development of our human capital — a key element of our international competitiveness.

What is the future of the program?

The program has been recognized by the Minister of Education as a CEGEP education certificate program. This was a huge benefit for us and helps demonstrate the value of the program to our employees. The program remains a priority, especially with a tightening labour pool — the reason we’re starting another session in spring 2018. As well, we’re working to integrate our ever-expanding technology into the program to keep it relevant for us and our employees.

It was crucial to me that the program help employees develop transferable skills.

Do you think this model can work in other contexts? Do you believe other organizations would benefit from a similar program?

We definitely find this kind of partnership valuable for the organization and our employees. We conducted a similar, but smaller-scale program, with the college of Sherbrooke for the development of automation skills for our maintenance crew. We have also sought help from a local trade school for welding courses.

These partnerships encourage educational institutions to think of us for opportunities like internships and plant tours for students needing guidance in their career paths — thereby putting us in contact with new talent. Based on our success, I would highly recommend that HR departments explore these opportunities with their local schools.

What makes on-the-job training successful?

A well-structured, closely monitored training method supported by coaches who are trained to be trainers can prove to be very successful — keeping in mind that practical training is key. We do simulations and tests on the line to make sure that trainees know what to do when faced with problems.

I think motivation is another big component in the success of the program. Reimbursing employees after they pass fosters their commitment to seeing the program through. Plus, I think having the program recognized by the Ministry of Education legitimized it and showed our employees the added value of the program — encouraging them to invest their time and effort.

Lee Thibodeau, Operations and Human Resources Manager, Raufoss Technology Canada

Lee Thibodeau

Operations and Human Resources Manager, Raufoss Technology Canada

A management graduate who joined the ranks of Raufoss Technology Canada in 2002 after starting her career in the automotive industry at General Motors of Ste-Therese. Part of the 2002 startup team of a greenfield manufacturing plant of Raufoss in North America, she has overseen the setup of the Human Resources Department now represented by a team of four and has coordinated numerous continuous improvement projects to help the organization reach operational excellence. In the spirit of the organization-learning culture, she is currently completing a Master’s degree in Organizational Development.

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