Manufacturing Is a Job for Knowledge Workers

May 1, 2002
Automating the training process is the next step for manufacturing.

Today’s production worker is much more of a brainworker than his great-grandfather. That’s why, to stay competitive and profitable, today’s industry needs to continually educate workers as well as machinery and systems.

It’s no surprise then to find that manufacturing has been trying to automate learning along with production. The new dream in industry is to automatically keep everybody up-to-date on engineering and factory techniques. But how?

The old reliables of academia have been tried: instructors, classrooms and tests. The result has been some success, but at a terrific cost. In effect, companies have had to hire whole staffs of educators.

Today, however, researchers have been using computers and software systems and, of course, the Internet. Results have — until now — been spotty. Big mistakes were made. Now, however, the National Center for Manufacturing Science (NCMS), Ann Arbor, Michigan, claims it has made significant progress in bringing cost-effective continuing education to industry — using industry’s resident expertise.

The approach it uses involves reusable training modules that can be updated. “These are multimedia, interactive, 20- to 30-minute modules that allow all classes of any company — anywhere in the world — to view and participate,” NCMS’s Knowledge Solutions Division general manager Ken Johnson explains to MHM.

Manufacturing is complex work, including the cooperative efforts of numerous companies and thousands of experts from top managers to machinists and maintenance people. Coordinating their continuing education is an ever-more difficult competitive challenge. Keeping the whole effort focused on the specific and special needs of any given area of expertise is one primary goal of any e-learning system. The NCMS Knowledge Solutions Division program uses a company’s own experts to teach others over the Internet. “It’s like a flexible manufacturing system. Call it a flexible knowledge system,” says Johnson.

Previous approaches to e-learning were not specific enough and were far too expensive. Using a series of “learning portals,” the SME approach allows a company to bring specific material to any given class while updating the database itself. Only the Internet can allow NCMS to do this cost-effectively.

“Total continuing education programs have cut costs from $100,000 per class to $4,500,” Johnson says. Forty classes per month, e-style, cost less than two regular classes. Also, e-style classes are reusable and updatable in training modules in the SME system.

Previous attempts to do this sort of thing were “too generic, too expensive, and were not kept current,” adds Johnson. How successful has the NCMS effort been? “Two of the Big Three are using our e-learning systems. The third is negotiating.” He also notes that one automaker’s entire, worldwide logistics and material handling operation is using this e-learning technique developed by NCMS.

Automation was often misunderstood as some horrible weapon to get rid of workers. A lot of time and effort was used up in a generations-long fight between management and labor over exactly what that word meant. It has come to mean a better life for all through increased productivity. Let’s hope that continuing education through e-learning brings about even greater productivity for all.

For further information on the NCMS e-learning systems, go to The new Web site for its Knowledge Solutions Div. SME system should be ready by now.

George Weimer, contributing editor, [email protected]

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