Supporting training with e-learning tools

As companies look to fill positions, online offerings can help speed up the learning cycle

The FABRICATOR November 2011
November 18, 2011
By: Dan Davis

Manufacturing companies, both large and small, complain that they can't find skilled workers to fill open positions. Instead of waiting for local educational institutions to change their ways, they might have to assume more training responsibility, and e-learning tools can help them do just that.

Supporting training with e-learning tools -

How can so many people be unemployed, yet so many positions open at manufacturing companies in certain areas of the U.S.?

Those manufacturing companies will tell you that they simply can’t find candidates with the right skills that they need.

“We cannot find qualified hourly production people, and for that matter many technical, engineering servicing technicians, and even welders, and it is hurting our manufacturing base in the United States,” Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman said during a business roundtable discussion in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, in September. “The education system in the United States basically has failed them, and we have to retrain every person we hire.”

Caterpillar’s situation is not unique. The Sheboygan Press in Wisconsin ran a news story in early October that reported on factories’ struggles to find skilled labor. The article said that of the 32,000 active job openings in the state at the time of the report, approximately half were in manufacturing, with a majority of them requiring advanced skills that just weren’t widely available in the ranks of the unemployed.

Now some may argue that the skilled-labor shortage has to do with low wages associated with those open positions or just a general disdain for manufacturing work. But that still doesn’t dismiss the fact that manufacturing companies need workers with certain skill sets to stay on top of production needs.

As a result, many of these companies have decided to become more involved in training of new employees. To offset the cost of hiring instructors or having experienced manufacturing personnel spend time away from the production floor to guide new hires, more companies are looking to electronic-based training—or e-learning, as those involved in technical training like to call it.

Just What Is E-learning?

Education gurus may have different takes on e-learning, but most can agree that it involves two key parts: an electronic component and the capability for students to learn at their own pace. At one time many of these courses were simply digital slide shows on a CD that someone loaded on a personal computer. With the increased access to broadband Internet connections, digital instructional materials now can exist on a server located anywhere in the world, and the student need only log on to a secure Web site to begin the learning experience. Whether working from a CD or online, the student is in charge of when the lesson begins, pauses, and ends—all with the click of a mouse.

“Students like it because it’s available 24 hours a day and seven days a week, anywhere there is an Internet connection,” said Chad Schron, division manager, ToolingU, one of the forerunners of providing educational materials for manufacturing skill development.

“If you have 100 welders or CNC operators, you can really differentiate and allow each individual person to take the classes they need—maybe blueprint reading or shop math,” he added, “whereas someone else can jump into advanced content.”

Originally, ToolingU was a project to teach distributors about a manufacturer’s workholding and clamping products. Soon that manufacturer, Jergens Inc., was inundated with requests for electronic instructional materials for other manufacturing areas, such as metal cutting and CNC technology. By 2001 ToolingU was launched as a Jergens business division and offered 30 classes. Today the e-learning firm is a division of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and offers more than 400 classes, ranging from specific areas such as machining, plastics manufacturing, and welding to skill development, such as quality inspection and safety training, that is applicable to all types of manufacturing.

“There is such a huge skills crisis in manufacturing. People are struggling to find qualified workers, and ongoing training is a perfect piece of the puzzle in terms of how you are ramping up and evaluating your workforce,” Schron said.

Schron estimated that ToolingU has about 100,000 users. Roughly half of them visit and access course materials directly from that Web site. The other half of the users access the ToolingU courseload, but through their employer’s own learning management system, the internal platform on which the instructional material is delivered to employees. For example, Caterpillar University, which uses some of ToolingU’s courses plus those from other sources, provides one central location on the Web where its employees can go to access courses.

Of course, many more sources for this type of learning exist. The Fabricators & Manufacturers Association (FMA) International, the parent organization of The FABRICATOR, has established its e-FAB series of online learning offerings. Topic areas include “Fundamentals of Press Brakes,” “Hand and Inspection Tools for Precision Sheet Metal Operators,” “Blueprint Reading and Part Layout,” and “Math Calculations for Sheet Metal.”

“You can stop, go back, or go at your own pace,” said Steve Benson, the president and CEO, ASMA LLC, and the instructor for many of the e-FAB programs.

The availability of e-learning to teach manufacturing skills doesn’t end there. The National Tooling & Machining Association is in the process of launching NTMA U, a six-semester program that will complement the association’s apprenticeship programs and projects targeted at getting people interested in manufacturing careers. Educational programs cover topics from entry-level machining to advanced CNC machining involving trigonometry and algebra.

Even the American Welding Society, which serves a constituency that truly relies on hands-on training to hone skills, has reached out to the online world. American Welding Online is the organization’s Internet home for training and obtaining AWS certifications.

“Everyone has their own way they want to get their training. Some only want it in-house. Some are good with the online,” Benson said. “Like everybody, we all have our own personal tastes in how we do things.”

That appears to be the key driver pushing e-learning to the forefront: It’s only a complement to more traditional types of instruction.

Putting E-learning to Use

Rod Jones, chief learning officer, DMG/Mori Seiki University, said he views e-learning as an “additive” to face-to-face training. Today’s economic realities forced DMG/Mori Seiki, a manufacturer of CNC machining equipment, to reconsider just how it could alter its equipment training efforts while simultaneously maintaining the quality of the instruction. For training, the equipment-maker sent out an applications engineer with every machine delivery, and that installation and training engagement with the customer could last as long as a month in certain circumstances. That had to change.

“Cost structures do not allow that,” Jones said. “We began to look at how we could leverage technology. The answer was a sort of virtual instructor.”

Jones was hired five years ago—first as a consultant, but later a full-time employee—to sort through the training conundrum. Jones said he knew that any e-learning offering had to be very interactive to capture the attention of the student, so his team set forth to create educational materials with high-end graphics, depicting a world in which the student could push buttons, move dials, and enter data—actually run a machine in a virtual production environment.

In December 2006 Mori Seiki University was launched. (The name was later changed to DMG/ Mori Seiki University following the merger of the two companies in the U.S. in 2010.) The machine tool builder invested $4 million in the development of the e-learning program, which today stands at 30 courses designed to educate customers about their machining centers. The four- to eight-hour-long courses teach users how to program and operate the machines. When a customer purchases a machining center, it gets two licenses to access the online university for six months.

Jones said the goal is to have the customer brush up on the basics before the equipment is delivered. That way, the application engineer who oversees the installation can do more in-depth teaching about the features of the machine.

“A good example might be collision cell programming. It’s a feature where you set up the parameters of the machine so it won’t run into its own chuck,” Jones said. “That is more advanced stuff, and we couldn’t get around to that many times [during installation]. So what happened was that after you installed the machine, there was an accident and they tear up a part of the machine. You would have to spend $20,000 for a spindle rebuild, or someone could have gotten hurt.”

Jones said the machining community has embraced e-learning. He estimated that DMG/Mori Seiki University delivered 80,000 hours of training during the company’s last fiscal year, which ended in March.

Those same online learners also can access advanced manufacturing educational programs, 85 courses covering subjects such as lean manufacturing and statistical process control, and more than 90 business courses providing guidance on human resource issues and leadership skill development. As with other e-learning content providers in the manufacturing sector, companies can contract with DMG/Mori Seiki University to create their own “university” and offer online courses on their own branded Web site.

Meanwhile, the machine tool builder continues the face-to-face training at customers’ facilities and in classrooms in Chicago and Dallas. It’s hard to replace that personal interaction that occurs when people actually get together and exchange observations and ideas.

“That‘s the type of thing the online [learning] is not able to deliver. It will bring you the basics, whereas the class is much more personalized and is able to answer questions,” he said.

The Blended Approach

Oberg Industries Inc., a $100 million metal manufacturing firm with facilities in Pennsylvania, Mexico, and Costa Rica, has used e-learning as part of its training program since 2002. It’s a key element as the company looks to get new employees up to speed as quickly as possible and to update the skills of its current 650 employees.

“We use a blended learning approach,” said Greg Chambers, Oberg’s director of compliance. “We do online e-learning and classrooms. We run the gamut.”

The combination is necessary because not all people learn the same way. Some are visual learners who can watch an online presentation, absorb all of the necessary points, and replicate the instructions on the shop floor. Others are kinesthetic learners, people who learn by working with their hands; they need the hands-on training that can occur only inside the real world.

“If someone catches something during e-learning, we’ll verify that when we have our classes. But if they don’t catch it, they’ll be able to learn it in the stand-up class,” Chambers said.

Online learning at Oberg typically is dedicated to the fundamentals, such as the basics of metrology and manufacturing terminology. Once hired, an employee has the chance to access more than 70 different classes to begin his or her quest for more knowledge.

“Then we watch them and see how they attack it. Do they have a lot of questions? Are they go-getters? Are they assertive?” Chambers said. “Those are the indirect things that you can pick up from e-learning.”

What’s Next for E-learning?

The third generation of e-learning products, in which the level of interactivity between the student and the computer screen blurs the line between the real and virtual worlds, raises the effectiveness of knowledge retention, according to Jones. Because it mimics hands-on learning, the impact is that much greater.

“This generation is where you are actually interacting with virtual devices, machines, and technologies on the screen. You are able to take the caliper and measure the part. You take a voltmeter, and you take the leads across something; if it’s not right, you see smoke coming off of the voltmeter,” Jones said. “There is a big difference.”

So much so that Jones said one hour of e-learning on third-generation technology is worth three to five hours of classroom instruction. With this level of online engagement, a student can’t afford to check out like he or she might in a traditional classroom setting. The student can progress only by passing a test at regularly scheduled intervals.

ToolingU’s Schron said he sees social media becoming more influential in the use of e-learning programs. That type of informal interaction—with more experienced peers or even instructors—leads to better retention of knowledge, he added.

These trends definitely bode well for those companies wanting to maximize their training efforts now and for those that are trying to convince younger people that a career in manufacturing is a good move. Addressing two major concerns—developing talent and improving the image of manufacturing—with a single investment in e-learning is the type of efficiency that many manufacturers will find hard to ignore.

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8281

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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