‘Automation will transform manufacturing’

Photo courtesy of OMEP
Aaron Fox (right) is greeted by outgoing OMEP president Chris Scherer during the Oregon Manufacturers Summit.

A Q&A with Aaron Fox, the incoming president of the Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership (OMEP), an organization that provides advisory services to the state’s manufacturers.

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Fox originally joined OMEP in 2004, spending eight years as a consultant for the nonprofit. He then left to work for Welch Allyn, a manufacturer of medical diagnostic equipment. This year, he rejoined OMEP after Chris Scherer, president of OMEP, called to ask if he would be interested in taking over the helm after Scherer retires.

Fox, who becomes president in July, talked to Oregon Business about the challenges manufacturers face integrating technology into their workplace, and how reshoring is a real phenomenon.     

This interview is edited for length and clarity.

OB: What is the biggest challenge facing manufacturers?

Aaron Fox: The acceleration of technology advancements will have a huge impact. That will be a big challenge for companies — to keep up with those advancements as we are looking at the internet of things and being fully connected and monitored and optimized. These advancements will focus on more technology in the workplace and a more technologically advanced workforce.

OB: Is there really a movement toward reshoring?

AF: I think there has been a trend towards insourcing due to supply chain complications.  Companies are recognizing that it is more competitive for them to bring some parts of their supply chain back into the United States.

OB: What is the main complication companies face when their supply chain is global?

AF: Lead time is the main complication. You think about the amount of time it takes for materials to be transported overseas and the amount of material that needs to be in the supply chain to ensure that factories have what they need when they need it.

If there ever is a problem, all those materials that are in the supply chain when that problem is identified are suspect. The complexity of that causes inefficiencies.

But just as importantly, as demands change and market needs change more and more quickly, it impedes a company’s ability to integrate changes in a short period of time to be ahead of their competitors.

OB: Will increased automation hamper job growth in the manufacturing sector?

AF: I do believe that automation is a big part the future of manufacturing. The reality is that it changes the workforce. I don’t think it will dampen the workforce requirements.

With the advancements of robotics, it is beneficial to the workforce that robots do repetitive tasks. It allows us to use skilled workers in a more skilled manner.

As long as we embrace technology and companies have the ability to strengthen the workforce with respect to their skills, it makes us into a more advanced and technical workforce. The challenge is to ensure the workforce is skilled and trained to support that technology.

OB: Are manufacturers doing enough to overcome the skills gap?

AF: You hear a lot that we don’t have enough skilled machinists or welders. Manufacturers have realized that industry has to play a role in making sure there are skilled workers and that the capabilities of those workers are part of developing the workforce. We developed a program at OMEP that helps companies identify where there are skills gaps and put together methodologies so that they can better train their workforce and be a part of developing that skills pool that they need to be successful in growing their companies.

OB: What is your organization’s view of apprenticeships?

AF: We are certainly involved in discussions with the universities and other industry partners that are interested in that space.  There are base core capabilities that everyone needs for a specific trades skill. But companies taking an active role in developing the required skills for their workforce and having that capability internally is what will differentiate those companies that are able to grow.