We recently held our pan European manufacturing summit in Amsterdam. The delegates were very engaged and we covered a wide range of topics from enterprise software to emerging technology to new business models. However, the topic that sparked the most passionate discussion was the challenge, both today and in the foreseeable future, of attracting, retaining, and enabling employees.
My colleague Pierfrancesco Manenti has described the old factory model as labor intensive while the factory of the future will be people intensive. What he means is that modern, highly automated factories won't require as many bodies to make them work, but will require sharp engineering, programming, and vocational minds. And this skills requirement is what creates the issue.
One of the delegates, representing a company from the host country stated that the Netherlands will lose 850,000 trained engineers over the next ten years to retirement while graduating only 300,000 new engineers. Combine this shortfall with an overall industry perception problem that manufacturing is more work for less pay and the problem becomes acute and potentially chronic. In Europe, it seems those companies with high unemployment should be filling the void in those nations with the biggest need, but language barriers impeded progress.
Attendees at the conference, including representatives from government, offered a familiar set of ideas to address the problem. Looser immigration laws, more language training, and an emphasis on STEM education early in a child's education were all familiar to this American attendee. There was one program, however, that was novel to me - the concept of the teaching factory.
The idea is quite simple. Just as medical schools have teaching hospitals where aspiring MDs can attend to real patients, a teaching factory would allow young engineers, roboticians, and modern craftsman to be involved in real production, solving real problems. The concept is currently in trial in Belgium and has a lot of government support. We would recommend that governments outside of Europe investigate the possibility of creating these teaching factories - potentially a much more productive public/private partnership.