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VOL. 6 | NO. 46 | Saturday, November 09, 2013

Mechatronics

A new term describes an old concept as manufacturing returns to Memphis

By Bill Dries

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“Mechatronics.” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said the word so fast that it got lost in the echo of the large aircraft hangar at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology near Memphis International Airport.

And he said it only once. The rest of the time, he used a better-known term, “advanced manufacturing.”

Mechatronics is the latest buzzword in the resurgence of manufacturing in Memphis. Haslam was at the hangar near the airport in September to announce $2.8 million in grants for TCAT and Southwest Tennessee Community College to get the equipment they need to train those who already have manufacturing in mechatronics.

“It’s really kind of the old multi-craft. … It is an individual that really understands maintenance in the manufacturing field,” said John Churchill, executive director of workforce development at STCC.

The change in terminology is an indication of why the comeback of manufacturing a decade into the 21st century is on terms that are much more advanced and complex than they were 30 years ago. That’s when traditional, industrial-age manufacturing at bedrock Memphis workplaces like Firestone, International Harvester and Kimberly Clark began to lock the doors and turn to rust.

Manufacturing companies work more deliberately in today’s rejuvenated manufacturing sector to keep unplanned shutdowns of equipment to a bare minimum. So those maintaining the machinery often also do preventive maintenance.

Executives at Memphis-based International Paper Co. always outline planned outages during the company’s quarterly earnings calls with investors. Outages, or down time that isn’t planned, are accounted for in the earnings statements the publicly traded company makes every three months.

“(Mechatronics) entails just about anything you would need a maintenance person to do,” Churchill said. “It ranges from mechanics, pumps, gear boxes, belts, chains, all of that. It can be PLCs, electric motors, drives, instrumentation and it even includes machine shop skills. I guess the best term is a complete maintenance person for most manufacturing industries.”

PLC is shorthand for programmable logic controller, the computer that manages all of the other manufacturing equipment.

“In all modern manufacturing, that thing right there is one of the ones that’s going to control the rest of it,” said Hunter Purnell.

Purnell is heading a four-member instruction team at Southwest that was working in a lab on the school’s Macon Cove campus just before Halloween with four employees of the Hershey plant in South Memphis.

At the PLC station, Joe Vazquez stared intently into a computer screen and a manual. His object, like those at three other stations, was to make a small motor at the station move through a simulator that confronts them with problems along the manufacturing chain between the start of the process and getting the motor to run. That translates to keeping the plant running and making products.

Cody Cole and instructor James Warwick troubleshoot an Electronic Drives System in a lab where “mechatronics” is being used.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“We are seeing what kind of skills they have for a multilevel, multiskilled technician,” Purnell said of the lab work, which followed online cognitive tests.

Vazquez and his coworkers scored high enough to advance to this next assessment. With the combined score they get credit toward an associate degree or training certificate from Southwest and could pursue more training.

“Instead of just throwing training at them – stuff that they already know – let’s get prior learning assessment on what they already know,” Purnell said. “Let’s concentrate on the things that we can make them better at.”

The four workstations demonstrate just how the assembly process crosses boundaries.

Herbert Beasley used a socket wrench and a mallet at the mechanical or motor control station.

Cody Cole cupped a hand over a display atop a small digital keypad at the Human Machine Interface station. To his right was a small motor.

“All inside of what Cody’s messing with – that’s what you would see in a modern plant,” Purnell said.

Meanwhile, Tommy Hall repeatedly and methodically shut a power box switch up and down as he checked a network of patch cords that represented an assembly line leading to yet another small motor.

Purnell worked at Hall’s station creating problems for the team to solve.

“I can go in the back like the Wizard of Oz and I can pull out a plug and put in faults,” Purnell said. “I can make things break. They have to find where the fault is.”

Across the room, after lots of adjustments with the mallet and wrenches, Beasley unlocked a safety switch and started up his motor at a slow speed at first. The motor’s whine filled the room as the others continued working at their stations.

The whine went higher as Beasley slowly adjusted the speed up and after the whine leveled out, Beasley just as gradually adjusted the speed down to a stop.

“Try that one more time,” said his instructor, David Fulcher.

A few minutes later, Vazquez diverted his gaze a bit to his right from the computer screen and manual to a button he pushed. Another kind of small motor with a different whine began moving like a lathe with a ring on the cylinder moving left and right.

Southwest will be working with three industries in its mechatronics training – medical device manufacturers, process control personnel at plants like Hershey and DuPont and paper companies and logistics.

And Churchill said the goal isn’t to make the workers experts in everything. They will continue after the mechatronics training to pursue more intently a specialty like being a mechanic or an electrician.

“They are not going to become experts at all of them. But they want them to become very familiar with all of it,” Churchill said. “I can send almost anybody to do most of the elementary things and do it safely and correctly.”

There is the possibility those trained in mechatronics could become engineers but the training is not a straight or clear line to a four-year degree.

“We have two types of degrees. One is where they take all of the math and science and English mainly so they can transfer to a four-year college,” Churchill said. “When they take the applied degree, then what they are really doing is learning how things work. Very few of the hours are English and math. Most of it is getting them to go out and get a job immediately.”

The point Churchill and Haslam make is that while mechatronics is a new name for an old concept, the machinery and technology behind the concept requires some kind of degree or certification and no longer just a high school diploma and being “good with their hands.”

Southwest is working with employers like Hershey who are able to say specifically what they want in a training program they send their workers to. The Unilever plant in Covington is putting all of its operators through 40 hours of mechanical training.

“It’s no longer where the operator just sits and watches equipment. They have to really understand what’s happening,” Churchill said. “It takes a more educated operator and maintenance person to keep up with the new technologies.”

The recently released Greater Memphis Chamber report on the city’s resurgent manufacturing sector showed manufacturers in the Memphis area plan to hire more than 4,000 employees through 2016 at an average annual pay of $32,180. Those are new jobs in a local economy historically dominated by the logistics and distribution sectors – which are also affected by the mechatronics training – along with health care and tourism.

Purnell likens the skill set needed in a single plant to cross training.

“In a plant of the size that these guys are running, every day is a different day. It’s a new day and a new problem,” he said of the Hershey employees. “It could be a mechanical problem. It could be an electrical problem. It could be a piping problem. A pipe’s broken or a pump’s broken or the piping to a pump is broken. From all of the stuff that these guys do mixing candy, all of that’s involved – pumps, electrical motors, gears, rollers. Once they get the stuff made, they have to be able to palletize it and distribute it.”

The experience of the quartet showed in the methodical way they went about the exercise. Each person followed the basic procedures of making sure the machine was off at the power box and testing connections.

“You are getting the cream of the crop here. You’re getting guys who already do this for years,” Purnell said. “We have to bring students up, kids out of high school in our area and bring them up and get them to at least a level where they can do some of this troubleshooting in a lab environment. So that when they get their job and they walk out on that floor, they are talking the same language.”

The first test of that, he adds, is a supervisor walking up to a first-day employee and saying, “That switch is open. Do you know what I mean?”

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