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U.S. Automaker Develops In-House Experts for Control Systems Use and Training

New, highly automated production equipment would require equipping plant-floor electricians with the knowledge and skills necessary to operate and troubleshoot the totally transformed control system.

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Long before the bulldozers arrived at its Michigan plant, one of the world’s largest automobile manufacturers mapped out a master plan to begin scrapping the aging control systems and automated machines used to build its vehicles in facilities worldwide. The sequential launch of the new manufacturing technologies would mark the first major retooling in more than a decade for many of the manufacturer’s plants.

However, the overarching goal was far more strategic: to create a common automation platform – with the most advanced vehicle technologies available – that would streamline the manufacture of its 21st century cars and trucks.

A sophisticated, fully integrated, controls system architecture would lay the foundation for the manufacturer’s leaner factories of the future, but realizing this vision would require far more than replacing legacy equipment. It would require equipping plant-floor electricians with the knowledge and new skills necessary to operate and troubleshoot the totally transformed control system.

Train-the-Trainer Model

Employee training has been a cornerstone of the company’s culture since its founding just after the turn of the 20th century. However, workforce development had historically been handled within individual plants. When the company brought in third-party trainers, they usually came from equipment manufacturers who focused solely on teaching workers how to operate new, stand-alone technologies.

This training was often inefficient because it didn’t include information about how the new components integrated with other elements in the production system. Because of the magnitude of the control system overhaul, the company needed a totally new curriculum for its electricians. The training also had to be designed to systematically roll out to various plants over several years.

The company’s workforce team established three more key tenets for the new electrician training program:

  1. It must be customized to the automaker’s new controls architecture globally.
  2. It had to be sustainable, meaning electricians across plants could use the curriculum for the foreseeable future, with only minor modifications when necessary.
  3. The classes had to be conducted in-house to maximize participation and make the most of employees’ time.

The group decided the best way to meet those goals was a unique “train-the-trainer” model, in which selected electricians would become subject-matter experts on the new equipment, enabling them to train the crew they work with on a daily basis. “In each plant, they wanted to develop highly skilled individuals who would teach their co-workers how to operate, maintain and troubleshoot the new system,” said Glenn Goldney, manager, Global Workforce Solutions at Rockwell Automation.

The automaker’s workforce team realized they needed outside expertise to develop and deliver the highly specialized controls training.

Custom Simulation Workstations

In mid-2009, the automaker invited Rockwell Automation to bid on the electrician training program. The automaker wanted a comprehensive program that would include training on the company’s next-generation production components from other vendors, as well. The company also commissioned a custom simulation workstation that would precisely replicate the entire suite of new controls, and other integrated hardware and software that electricians would operate in the retooled plants.

In November 2009, the two companies assembled a multifaceted team composed of their top training experts. The group included the skilled-trades technical-training team at one of the automaker’s plants in Michigan – the launch site for the new production technologies.

For the next six months, the team worked at the plant to develop the control architecture systems integration course to educate electricians about all the new company-specific hardware and software components in its new integrated automation system. As the workforce project manager, Rockwell Automation worked with third-party vendors to incorporate content about its technologies into the curriculum.

Rockwell Automation also hired instructors with specialized competence in specific aspects of vehicle production, such as the paint process. “We weren’t experts in all the technology, but we are experts in how to manage large workforce solutions,” said Goldney.

Once the course content was nearly complete, the automaker selected a handful of the Michigan plant’s most experienced and skilled electricians to form the first train-the-trainer class. Their first lessons were truly hands-on: The electricians worked with the Rockwell Automation team to build four custom simulators.

The 360-degree workstations – each about the size of a refrigerator and equipped with wheels for easy transport – contained all the next-generation hardware components on racks, just as electricians would later see them on the plant floor. The training team also developed customized lab exercises to correspond directly with the hardware and software configuration of the control simulators.

Once the simulators were set up, the electricians became full-time students, learning the curriculum for three weeks. Then, each trainer-in-training took turns co-teaching the 120-hour course alongside a Rockwell Automation instructor for 12 weeks. Their students were small groups of fellow electricians. Finally, the instructor trainees taught the course solo, and were evaluated and certified by a Rockwell Automation instructor.

In total, the trainers-in-training spent 30 weeks immersed in the educational process. The core courses focused on how to operate the new controls system architecture, including an education in industrial Ethernet networking, which formed the backbone of the new system. The trainers also learned “softer” skills they’d need to be effective teachers, including tips on topics ranging from public speaking to how to compose a PowerPoint presentation.

The result: The Michigan plant produced four qualified in-house expert instructors and 36 trained electricians. By that time, the old automation equipment had been bulldozed at the Michigan plant to make way for the new technology. Those 36 newly-trained electricians were ready to take control of the new equipment. Meanwhile, the freshman class of in-house trainers was teaching the new courses to dozens of their peers at the Michigan plant.

“The same process was replicated at the Kentucky facility and in six additional plants. In conjunction with each plant’s leadership, we identify the electricians who will participate, build another set of workstations, and then kick off the train-the-trainer program,” said Goldney.

Today, more than 1,500 electricians have gone through the automaker’s new training regime at sites across North America, including assembly and stamping plants in three other cities. Electricians from as far away as India have traveled to U.S. plants to become instructors.

While 90 percent of the original curriculum is still in use, the electrician training has evolved to include software and hardware updates in the automaker’s technology suite. The three-week core course also has been expanded and tailored to suit the differing workforce needs and production demands at various plants.

Today, more than 30 expert trainers have become invaluable resources at the auto giant’s plants in the United States, Mexico and Canada. “That’s more skilled trainers than probably any other company in the world,” Goldney said. “And more are on the way.”


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