Uncertainty creates opportunities for innovation and progress. Those who embrace change and adapt tend to come out on top.
Recently, Fluid Power World had the opportunity to interview Paul Kundinger, third-generation president of Kundinger Inc, a Wisconsin and Michigan-based company delivering fluid power, automation, process control, and product solutions to a wide range of industries.
Kundinger shared recommendations for addressing labor and supply chain shortages and commented further to help fluid power professionals address these issues head-on. Here’s what our expert had to say:
Invest in new technology
Businesses are looking for ways to simplify processes to make machine operation more accessible for less skilled workers. One significant tool in this process is human-machine interfaces (HMIs), which allow workers to communicate with machines and interpret their data. To be effective, HMIs must be user-friendly and intuitive, considering many workers using these interfaces may not have a technical background.
Remote monitoring and connectivity also benefit staffing because facilities, grounds, machines, and hazardous areas can be monitored from a single point, and multiple facilities can be monitored at once without needing someone physically present at the site. This enables plants to use fewer employees as plant safety personnel.
Automation is also a critical approach for addressing labor shortages. By leveraging automation as a tool for production, manufacturers can streamline their operations while reducing their dependency on human labor.
Fluid Power World: How is remote monitoring technology influencing fluid power manufacturers?
Paul Kundinger: When it comes to remote monitoring, you’re seeing a lot of the traditional fluid power products like pumps and valves with more connectivity. And in the systems we’re building — the hydraulic power units and such — more sensors are being applied to all of those. The sensors aren’t a new technology because we’ve seen those in cylinders in the past. But more sensors for temperature, flow, and pressure are being added in areas where we probably traditionally didn’t do it. Now that fewer employees are out on the manufacturing floor, having that data available has become critical for plant operations to understand what’s happening in the plants.
FPW: Is it just monitoring, or can they also control their systems?
Kundinger: The remote capabilities are allowing systems to make changes. For example, to provide for some of that control, as you see things changing, adjusting pump flows or the system pressures remotely to react to situations.
FPW: How about automation solutions and digital connectivity among equipment?
Kundinger: We’ve seen an uptick in automation solutions built for digital connectivity within an entire system. Cobots have become really popular in the industry because they’re so easy to apply. It’s become as simple as using a tablet to program the cobot. For example, in machine tending, where they’re using cobots to maybe put parts in machines and take parts out of a machine, it’s very easy to do that programming with the interfaces that the different manufacturers have developed.
Invest in warehousing resources
Another approach is the investment in warehousing resources. It is important to build strong relationships between warehouse distributors and manufacturers. By fostering strong partnerships, manufacturers gain access to a broad range of suppliers, enhancing their ability to procure the materials they need. This approach enables businesses to mitigate the risks of product delays due to supply chain disruptions.
FPW: How can modern technology help foster better relationships and a better supply chain?
Kundinger: Relationships have become very dynamic with COVID. Distributors like us have had to search out other manufacturers we haven’t represented in the past to find solutions for end customers.
One of the areas where we see customers starting to dabble in is the automated guided vehicles or the AGVs, where they might potentially be shifting away from traditional forklifts or even employees to try and integrate some automated vehicles and repurpose employees to do other work rather than to transport product throughout the shop floor.
Also, we’re seeing partnerships between end customers and partners like us really evolve. As customers were struggling, whether it be with personnel or supply, they tried to internalize more — such as valve assemblies, which they weren’t doing before — to have some control with personnel or the supply chain or internal hose-making capabilities. Now, you have customers that want to control their own destiny. And so we’re shifting some of the technologies that we did — the hose crimping or the valve building — to them to do internally so that they feel like they have better control of the situation. They also have to train their employees on things they didn’t do before because they relied on their partners.
We’ve also seen the reverse, where customers rely on distributor partners like us to take on things they don’t have the personnel for. So, it’s an interesting mix where you’re seeing certain customers want to internalize and capitalize on the ability to control their own destiny, and then those who appreciate a good partner that can take on some of it and keep the supply chain rolling.
Training current employees is also essential. Empowering and training employees in the latest technology is crucial, especially when new processes are introduced. Adopting a customer service approach and being available to customers even after implementation ensures the team has acquired the necessary skills to operate new technology effectively.
FPW: As you’re talking about cobots, automation, and programming, what kind of training approaches are you seeing or might be valuable for this next era of manufacturing?
Kundinger: COVID and everybody going remote made manufacturers up their game in online learning. Traditionally in our industry, there was a lot of face-to-face, in-person training, and we’ve seen manufacturers accelerate their online content so that it’s easy to take that training no matter where you’re at.
We were able to use that ourselves, as the whole world shut down for those first couple of months. Instead of going to in-person learnings, which are very time-consuming, we had employees commit any extra time to sit down in front of a PC to take a class a chunk at a time. And as we all came out of COVID, it was instilled to have that regular online learning and keep teams committed.
So now the learning is constant from week to week and not just in big chunks. Employees are now spending an hour or two a week with different classes and manufacturers and even have access to manufacturers that they wouldn’t have in the past because they weren’t going to in-person learnings.
In turn, the manufacturers continue to develop new content for any products or technologies that they launch. And ultimately, even some end customers can use that as products are released.
As a distributor, it’s important for us to be experts in what we provide our own customers. Online platforms have made it significantly easier to stay up on the latest technologies that our vendors are releasing. And it’s in a format that drives the interest of the employees.
FPW: Some manufacturers are experimenting with VR (virtual reality) for training. Do you notice any trends in that direction?
Kundinger: Our business system provider had a demo at a recent conference to show how VR could be integrated with our business system to provide service to our customers, which I thought was very intriguing. So, we could deploy VR for our customers, and with our team behind our screens, we let the customer wear the VR and almost walk them through.
It’s still early in the game, but I think that’s where some of the VR is headed — to be able to provide a service to end customers where they can put on VR glasses and interact with our team to troubleshoot or apply products when we can’t be there with them, shoulder to shoulder.
FPW: How about AI?
Kundinger: We’re also in the early stages of AI, which I think goes hand in hand with VR, where the AI is going to be able to provide answers and troubleshooting in an easy fashion for my team and the end customer team. We’ve seen some turnover with people retiring and a lot of knowledge leaving the workforce. I think some of that will be supplemented with AI as it becomes more popular.
I think it’s a kind of a wild west right now, where everybody’s just dabbling in it, and nobody’s quite determined a strategy on how to use it. It’s so powerful, and it’s one of those mind shifts. I think that we’re very early on, and the sooner you can learn it— learn how to leverage it to not only your advantage but your customer’s advantage — I think you’re going to be in good shape.
Filed Under: IoT, News, Sensors, Trending