How Major Tool & Machine Is Automating Its Way Out Of The Labor Squeeze

Editor’s Note: Major Tool & Machine will host a live tour of their 600,000 square-foot facility and lead a strategic case study on their automation efforts at our Smart Manufacturing Summit in Indianapolis Sept. 9-10. Learn more > 

In confronting an acute shortage of skilled workers at Major Tool & Machine, Mike Griffith is facing a battle that has become commonplace for U.S. manufacturing leaders these days. So the president of the Indianapolis-based outfit is turning to an increasingly used solution: automating the heck out of what happens on the factory floor.

Major Tool is a contract precision manufacturer that puts together big, big components and systems for industries including aerospace, defense, oil and gas and nuclear power. As a high-variety, low-volume shop, Major’s main activities are CNC machining, welding, large assembly and testing. So Major has been utterly dependent on the skills and experience of its workforce of about 415 people.

But a labor squeeze that’s been building for years has climaxed in an unprecedented choking effect that could throttle Major’s growth at a time of tremendous opportunity.

“We’re always going to need people, but our days of being able to hire 15 skilled machinists a year are over,” Griffith told Chief Executive. “We would be happy with two or three a year now, and if we’re going to find them, typically we’re going to have to convince them to leave their current employer.”

Major has a robust internal training program, Griffith said, “but it’s not enough. And you’re starting with students who are typically at the vocational level. And on the machining side, because of the size and complexity of our machines, putting a machinist who’s just gone through our training program directly on the shop floor with one of our large, complex CNC machines is pretty risky.”

This has left Griffith and Steve Weyreter, CEO and scion of the family-owned company, with little choice but to turn to “adaptive-control machining.” Combining sensor technology and software with machines, this approach to industrial automation will allow Major to mimic much of the experience-based savvy that is demonstrated by skilled humans in monitoring conditions and detecting problems quickly in the assembly process – and shutting down operations, if necessary, before significant damage is done.

“The technology has been around,” Griffith said. “But now we’ve got more of a reason, a business case, to pursue it. Our real focus is to rely more on process and less on people skills.”

Griffith said that “traditional machinists can tell what to do by feel, vibration and sounds that the tools are making. But those are skills it takes years to develop. My hope is that adaptive-control machining will take all those things and automatically adjust them and make the most efficient process possible.”

Indeed, Major has several reasons to swing into adaptive-control machining in the face of a paucity of skilled humans. “One reason is to protect ourselves on a large, complex machine, and with large, complex work, and not having someone who doesn’t have the skill level we would prefer. Another reason is that adaptive machining improves efficiency, increases tool life and reduces breakage. And if something goes wrong, it’ll stop the machine before there’s damage.”

And damage that shuts down a machine or a line can have huge ripple effects. “I’m looking at adding sensors to equipment with a single point of failure, like an air compressor, because if it fails, it could shut down a line that I’m relying on for keeping 30 people working.”

So, Major has begun to spend $25,000 to $40,000 per installation of adaptive machining in the plant and could perform as many as 30 separate installations, “depending on how far we want to take it,” Griffith said. As much as half the cost of the installations, up to a total of $200,000, may be reimbursed by the state of Indiana under a Manufacturing Readiness grant, Griffith said.

Automating processes isn’t new to Major, Griffith stressed. And, logically, much of that has covered simple functions. “But the more complex process you can automate, the more risk you’re reducing in your process,” he said. “And all of this is about identifying and reducing risk. The labor crisis has just forced us to look at tech options to help us get there.”

And, he advised other manufacturing leaders, turning to automation technology as sophisticated and expensive as adaptive-control machining isn’t a panacea. “There’s no one solution,” Griffith said. “You have to be working on a lot of different things to address the problem – anywhere from how we grow our people in training programs, to getting people in the door, to looking at software.”

Dale Buss: Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.
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