Hillbilly manufacturing...not!

Nestled in the Appalachian foothills is the busy and delightful town of Greenville, South Carolina. This is where the Reliance Electric and Dodge divisions of Baldor live. We first visited the R&D center, where, scattered among the historical artifacts and NASCAR memorabilia (this is where the Rockwell Automation race team really came from...) a world class test lab appeared. From a materials test lab with everything but a Scanning Electron Microscope (we used to have one, but we gave it to the local university in exchange for time on the machine) to a complete acoustics research group with one of the best soundproof acoustics labs I've ever seen, this is cutting edge R&D. Then we went to visit the Dodge gear plant. Plant manager Bill Engle led us on a tour of a plant he claims is as competitive as any plant in China, or anywhere else in the world. Then he proceeded to show us why. Robot manufacturing cells, multiaxis CNC machines performing multiple steps of the gearmaking process, served by highly skilled and long-service workers ("We've never had a layoff," Engle reported offhandedly)...and a Kaizen even every week. They use just about every manufacturing theory, Engle said. "For example," he said, "we used the Theory of Constraints to determine that we needed a dedicated inventory of parts in front of this oven for heat treating." Of course, that led them to find another constraint. "Does the chasing of the constraints around the plant buy you anything?" "Absolutely," he said. "We are more efficient, and we have much more productivity." "We are here as proof that you can be as productive in the United States as you can be in China." You bet. Bill is concerned, of course, about what he's going to do when some of his long service employees start retiring. "We can't find all the people we need," he said, "and it is going to get tougher. Clemson just opened a new automotive tech center. Michelin needs people too. We need engineers and trained mechanics and machinists."
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  • <p>Bill Engle will have trouble finding people, and so will everyone else. Demographic trends in the U.S. clearly show that there will be a shortage of workers for the next few decades.</p> <p>Automation will alleviate some of the need, but the balance will need to be filled by highly skilled immigrants.</p>

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