Sophisticated technology demands technically competent workers to function properly. Better training is the mantra for both incumbent workers and young adults.

When considering the staffing needs of the modern food plant, HR directors are inclined to reach for the antacid.

Baby boomers are poised to retire in droves. Equipment that used to be mechanical is now driven by electrical and electronic systems. The technical requirements for operators and maintenance personnel are ratcheting upward, yet the image of factory work is mired in mid-20th century perceptions, making it difficult to attract young people. That grinding sound is an audible warning that the automated plant of today might not function tomorrow.

The squeaky wheel of skills training is receiving much-needed lubrication at several friction points. Degree programs in mechatronics for packaging machines will debut this fall at colleges in the Northwest, Midwest and on the East Coast. Technology providers are maintaining and even expanding the training services they provide manufacturers. Outreach programs aimed at high school and middle school students are underway to attract and indoctrinate future engineers and technicians. And food executives, too long passive observers, are taking an active role in explaining their needs and offering internships and scholarships to promising students and prospective employees.

Degreed engineers certainly are needed, but the need for technically savvy operators and maintenance professionals is even greater. “To be successful, every engineer needs at least 12 good technicians behind him,” suggests Fred Vetter, vice president of manufacturing at Albany, OR-based Oregon Freeze Dry (OFD) Inc. Vetter helped organize an engineering internship program at Oregon State University that, over the last 25 years, has helped groom hundreds of engineers now working in manufacturing throughout the Pacific Northwest. Now he’s involved in a similar effort to attract and train young students to technical programs throughout the region.

An absence of in-house expertise can stop an automation initiative in its tracks. The ability to install, operate and maintain sophisticated systems is further jeopardized by staff downsizing and an aging workforce even as lean manufacturing initiatives try to unleash the potential in human assets. Vendors traditionally have been the training source, and many are bulking up their abilities. “A guy who might have used pH paper in the past for quality control would not recognize the difference between an oxygen sensor and a pH sensor,” notes Ken Queeney, marketing manager for the process analytics division of Mettler-Toledo International Inc., Bedford, MA. “In the last three years, we’ve expanded our on-site training programs.”

Mettler-Toledo makes in-line QA sensors used to measure turbidity, dissolved oxygen and other variables in fluid streams such as beer. They significantly improve process control over lab testing for high-throughput beverage production, but knowing how and when to clean a sensor or the procedure to rebuild an electrode or calibrate a device requires operator training. Without it, some companies abandon the technology a few months after installing it. To address the issue, Mettler-Toledo formalized an operator-training program that puts a team on site for up to three days to train plant personnel.

Unfortunately, instruction is in English only, and the technical expertise of Mettler-Toledo’s personnel does not necessarily translate into training expertise. The gap between teaching skills and technical expertise becomes glaring as the complexity of the equipment increases. Packaging machinery, which began migrating to servo motors and electronic controls 15 years ago, is an example. As food manufacturers adopted the new technology, they did not always experience optimum run speeds and fast changeovers because “the service technicians (who installed the equipment) were fabulous but were never taught to train,” says Maria Ferrante, director of work force development at Arlington, VA-based Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute. Food manufacturers and other end-users long complained about training deficiencies, and after some false starts, PMMI introduced a certified trainer program two years ago. The two-day train-the-trainer program teaches technicians how to organize a training program, conduct a needs assessment, address language issues and overcome other barriers to effective training. Since its launch, more than 400 technicians have been certified, including staffers at food companies such as Kraft, Nestlé and Malt-O-Meal, according to Ferrante.

A unique element is the evaluation procedure. Instead of giving their reviews of a training session on vacuum-transfer technology to the field technician who conducted the in-plant training, employees and supervisors at Malt-O-Meal’s Northfield, MN facility sent the evaluations directly to PMMI. “Elements like that made the training special,” says Katie Hoffer, a process engineer at the plant. “When you have to give the forms to the person you’re critiquing, it’s awkward.”

Vacuum conveyors were part of a larger ingredient-handling system installed two years ago at the facility. “It wasn’t rocket science, but it was a unique piece of equipment for us, and we were having problems with proper reassembly after cleaning,”  Hoffer explains.  “We’ve removed perfectly good equipment just because we weren’t comfortable with it,” and downtime and staff frustration were making that a likely outcome for the Piab conveyors. Instead, the PMMI-certified trainers from Piab delivered, according to Hoffer, “far and away the best vendor program I’ve dealt with in 18 years,” resulting in additional Piab installations at Malt-O-Meal.

“The people specifying the equipment are not always the people operating the equipment, so it’s critical that we establish a relationship with the operators,” says Ed McGovern, vice president-sales & business development at Hingham, MA-based Piab USA Inc. That wasn’t done initially in Northfield, resulting in work stoppages and client frustration. “It’s as simple as a needs assessment, but without understanding what is going on at the customer’s end, it’s not going to get done,” adds McGovern. An operator needs-assessment and training program is routinely included in all Piab proposals now, he says, and all of the firm’s customer-contact people are PMMI certified.   

A baker’s dozen of service technicians at RA Jones & Company Inc. are PMMI-certified trainers, and Bob Trimpe, manager of training & documentation at the Cincinnati packaging machinery firm, gives the program high marks in helping his technicians conduct more effective training for operators, mechanics and engineers at manufacturing sites. A more lukewarm endorsement is offered by Brian Burke, manager of technical & sales training for Wood Dale, IL-based Videojet Inc. Only one of the 11 instructors on Videojet’s staff has gone through the program. The difference has less to do with the trainer program than the backgrounds of the trainers: Several Videojet trainers have backgrounds in education, including Burke, who formerly taught calculus in the US Navy. Jones’s trainers, on the other hand, “are electro-mechanical technicians,” explains Trimpe. Communicating necessary information to diverse audiences is not their area of expertise.

Computers are essential in the operations of today’s manufacturing plants, but there often are more workstations than students at the training lab of the American Institute of Baking. Source: AIB International.

Redirecting education

Machine-specific training doesn’t address the multidisciplinary skills needed to exploit new technologies. A curriculum overhaul is needed in colleges, technical schools and even high schools and middle schools, many believe, if American manufacturing is going to have the skilled workers necessary to keep domestic businesses competitive. The overhaul requires a dialogue between industry and academia, and it’s beginning at a grass roots level in pockets of the country.

The first four-year degree program to combine mechanical and electrical engineering fundamentals gets underway this fall at Purdue University-Calumet in Hammond, IN. Almost half of America’s packaging machine builders are based in the corridor stretching from Green Bay, WI to the Chicago metro area, Purdue-Calumet’s backyard. Yet, until two engineering professors from the school attended a packaging show in 2007, they had no inkling of the demand for packaging engineers. “When we went to that show, we about fell on our faces,” recalls James B. Higley, a professor of mechanical engineering technology and one of the five members of the mechanical, electrical and computer engineering faculty shaping the new degree’s curriculum. “We see significant growth in well-paid jobs for engineers who may have lower theoretical skills but have higher practical knowledge, know how to use software and can do things with their hands.” The new bachelor’s degree is designed to certify to prospective employers that these graduates have in-demand skills and can “hit the ground running,” he adds.

Two community colleges will debut two-year degree programs in mechatronics in the fall. The curriculum at Reading (PA) Area Community College is the culmination of a four-year effort spearheaded by Keith Campbell, a retired Hershey Foods packaging engineer and now an industry consultant. Food professionals also played a leading role in launching the mechatronics/industrial maintenance program at Linn-Benton Community College (LBCC) in Albany, OR. Bill O’Bryan, general manager of National Frozen Foods’ Albany plant, and OFD’s Vetter, both active in training initiatives at the Northwest Food Processors Association (NWFPA), championed the program’s development. The men also have cultivated ties with area high schools, championing the need for more rigorous math and science education and advising high school counselors and students’ parents of the career possibilities in food production.

A May 2008 mechatronics showcase at LBCC drew 47 high school students, some of whom will be in the program’s first graduating class. Two of the attendees were given summer internships at National Frozen, and Vetter is securing four scholarships through NWFPA’s Innovation Productivity Center.

Industry outreaches like these are essential if a feeder system is to be created for college-level programs. “You really need to get in front of the younger students and their parents to make them understand the complexity of today’s manufacturing environment and the availability of family-supporting wages for skilled workers,” believes Fred Haynes, dean of LBCC’s engineering & industrial technology department.

“School counselors are one of the keys” to changing perceptions, adds O’Bryan. “They know better than anybody the kids’ skills and aptitude.”

Aligning the education community with industry needs is a slow process, but a shift is underway. Higley cites the in-roads of Project Lead the Way (, a five-year-old initiative to guide high school and middle school students in pre-engineering studies. With support from Rockwell Automation and other corporations dependent on technical talent, the network has grown to include 6,000 teachers at 2,000 schools nationwide and about 250,000 students. “These will be the future engineers and technicians,” Higley points out.

“Education is a key piece of the future success of our industry, and it’s an unmet need,” adds Vetter. “If educators on their own could have fixed the problem, they would have done it long ago.” He views the LBCC program as a proof of concept, “and then we clone it all across Oregon and Washington” to educate the thousands of skilled workers manufacturing will need.

Just as industry can’t buy its way out of the problem, schools can’t buy into the solution without help. The LBCC mechatronics lab required $500,000 to start up; at RACC, $1 million in grants were secured. Dorner Manufacturing, Bimba Manufacturing and other Chicago area suppliers were instrumental in equipping the lab for Purdue-Calumet’s program. “All universities are broke; since 9/11, there have been no meaningful budget increases,” Higley laments. The cost of a single PLC would exhaust his department’s capital budget, he adds.

Brian Burke (top left) conducts a training session on ink-jet printers at Videojet’s facilities in suburban Chicago. The firm has a staff of 11 trainers for customers’ operators and maintenance personnel.

New tools for training

Classroom instruction with working models for hands-on experience is the training gold standard, whether it is part of a degree program or vendor-conducted technology presentation. “The formula for effective customer training has not changed,” says Videojet’s Burke. “The delivery has gotten glossier, and there are a lot more tools in the arsenal,” he allows, but live equipment and a knowledgeable trainer “who can answer questions in real time” result in the best technology indoctrination.

Bret Benvenuti agrees. The engineering group leader prefers to conduct training in Orion, MI, on the premises of Applied Manufacturing Technologies Inc., for obvious reasons: The team of trainers, engineers and technical writers the AMT organized to provide hands-on instruction in robot-based automation need face-to-face interaction with robotics’ students. Though classes are sometimes conducted on the client’s site, both Burke and Benvenuti prefer to provide diagnostic and troubleshooting instruction on their own turf. “The best training is done when they come to us,” Burke insists. “They’re in a safe room where they can make mistakes without any consequences.”

However, off-site instruction increasingly is viewed as a luxury manufacturers no longer can afford. “Industry has pulled back from training and other spending,” observes Scott Casey, director of maintenance engineering at AIB International. The Manhattan, KS-based organization offers a 10-week residence course in maintenance training and three-day seminars on maintenance fundamentals in cities across the country. Despite the strong demand for workers with a foundation in controls technology and mechanical skills, attendance in recent years has been anemic at best.

A combination of on-line and face-to-face instruction might be the answer, though that stops short of the continuous skills enhancement some believe is necessary. “Training and work used to be two unconnected activities,” says Kirk O’Donnell, AIB’s vice president of education. Today, they must be integrated, with on-the-job instruction reinforced with on-line and other tools.

Innovation is one of the linchpins of effective training, agrees RA Jones’s Trimpe, and the influx of younger, more computer-literate workers presents new opportunities. Virtual-reality instruction is now an element in the Jones repertoire, part of a major shift in the last four years “from overhead projectors to PowerPoint and animation,” he says. Graphical and image-based instruction that can be reused with new hires minimizes production disruptions by allowing workers to make mistakes in a virtual setting.

“Historically, the reference manuals and electrical drawings were engineering documents,” Trimpe says. “Now, we have a hybrid documentation that workers also can use,” and it is loaded on HMIs where operators and mechanics can access it when needed.

AIB created an operator instructional program for robotic basket-loading cells on behalf of Colborne Inc.’s Foodbotics division. The computer-based training concludes with a multiple-choice quiz. Workers’ answers are recorded and forwarded to a supervisor, who then can identify employees requiring remedial training. Video lays a foundation, but the goal is to reduce on-the-job or classroom instruction, not replace it, says O’Donnell.

AIB has identified critical skills for mechanics, supervisors and field technicians, and hopes to launch a distance-learning program next year to help bakeries deliver “mobile learning” in those areas. Teaching a person to troubleshoot a PLC glitch or replace an oven’s ribbon burner must be done on the job, he says, but validating a worker’s proficiency lends itself to remote learning.

Regardless of the tools used, contemporary training has to be designed to fit a new breed of worker. “If you treat today’s workers like a cog in a machine, they will pick up and leave,” O’Donnell pointedly notes. “At the end of a training session, we’re going to have ask how it went, what worked, what didn’t work, and adjust the program accordingly.” 

Many manufacturers are responding to shortages of maintenance technicians by transferring responsibilities for basic maintenance and some troubleshooting to the operator level. The strategy hinges on better-trained operators, points out OFD’s Vetter.  “The days of dumbing the job down are gone.”

To ensure a machine is functioning properly, workers need to understand the entire process, not just their area of responsibility, training experts say. Technology didn’t replace paper in the office, and it won’t replace workers in the plant. If US food and beverage companies are to compete successfully in a global economy, they will need to attract and retain workers who have a foundation of understanding and receive continuous on-the-job skills enhancement. For more information:

Kirk O’Donnell, AIB International, 785-537-4750,
Bret Benvenuti, Applied Manufacturing Technologies Inc., 248-409-2000
Satpal Sidhu, Bellingham Technical College, 360-752-8317,
Keith Campbell, Campbell Management Services, 717-832-0115,
Bob Trimpe, RA Jones, 859-344-7175,
Fred Haynes, Linn-Benton Community College, 541-917-4589
Ken Queeney, Mettler-Toledo International Inc., 781-301-8807,
James B. Higley, Purdue University-Calumet, 219-989-2584,
Bonnie Spade, Reading Area Community College, 610-372-4721
Maria Ferrante, Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute, 703-243-8555,
Ed McGovern, Piab USA Inc., 781-337-7309
Brian Burke, Videojet Inc., 630-860-7300,

Training engineers, operators and owners on robot-based automation in an environment where mistakes could be made without causing serious injuries or damage led to the establishment of a training lab at Applied Manufacturing Technologies. Source: Applied Manufacturing Technologies Inc.

Technicians of the future

When Reading Area Community College kicks off its two-year mechatronics program, enrollment will include older students who already have earned core credits toward the degree. And many of them will fit classroom time around work schedules at food plants in south-central Pennsylvania.

“We’ve put 200 incumbent workers through the first 11 hours of this program already,” says Keith Campbell of Palmyra, PA-based Campbell Management Services and the driving force behind the new degree program. “The technician of the future is going to have to be skilled in mechatronics,” and it is as important to give current employees the electrical, mechanical and controls foundation needed to succeed as it is to groom young adults.

Mechatronics is taught at about 10 colleges and technical schools across the country, but the Reading program has stripped out power hydraulics and other elements not pertinent to packaging machinery. Instead, multi-access motion control and the finer points of high-speed flex pickers are covered, explains Campbell.

“You can’t run a world-class plant without sophisticated machinery, and you need skilled workers to run the machinery,” he adds. Similar programs to Reading’s with common content and standards need to be available nationwide, believes Campbell.

Industry's role in technical training

The instrumentation and controls technology for food and beverage does not differ meaningfully from that used for chemical, petrochemical and pulp and paper production, and workers trained in the technology can move easily from one industry sector to another. But unless food companies become more active in nurturing technical skills programs in their communities, a Washington educator warns, those students will opt for other industries.

“It is high time for industry to be proactive and connect with the local college and other resources in their community to address the shortage in technicians,” says Satpal S. Sidhu, dean of professional technical education at Bellingham (WA) Technical College. He established the college’s Center of Excellence for Process Technology in 2004 and this fall is launching a one-year certificate program for operators to complement two-year programs in process technology and instrumentation and control.

When crude oil began flowing south from Alaska, the state of Washington became home to four large refineries that each process up to 10 million gallons a day. Five natural gas co-gen plants followed, creating a big demand for workers knowledgeable in heating, cooling, pressure and other process fundamentals. “They may be responsible for one part of the process, but operators need to have knowledge of the whole process and what the sensitive points are if they are going to make the machines run better and maximize production,” Sidhu insists. The teens and older workers who go through his curriculum of math, physics, chemistry, process control and technical writing have no difficulty finding jobs paying $25 an hour, he adds.

Refinery professionals steer students at high school job fairs to the college and support the school with scholarships and sponsorships of outreach efforts such as Girls Get Technical, a three-day conference for high school students to expose them to technical careers in process manufacturing. But similar support from food companies is slow in coming, bemoans Sidhu. “There is no expression of the urgency.”

The threat to national competitiveness is real, he adds, and Sidhu says his school stands ready to provide guidance in establishing technical labs and training curricula nationwide.