Last year, I wrote about two art students in Detroit who showed their visions of future transportation. It got me thinking about workers and worker shortages, high-tech skill sets and the lack thereof, not just in the automotive industry, but also in plastics — and, well, just about everywhere it seems.
Art colleges like the College for Creative Studies, where the two students learned transportation design, offer more than just a safe space for those raw childhood and teenage emotions to finally be released in the form of imaginative masterpieces. They're also places where students can gain exposure to industry-standard software, virtual reality and all sorts of other interactive programs — many of which are finding a spot in manufacturing as factories get smarter.
I was reminded of this last month while attending the 2019 CAR Management Briefing Seminars, held Aug. 6-8, in Traverse City, Mich. I attended a session on future factories and how big automakers like Nissan and Ford as well as startups like Hackrod Inc. are converting manufacturing challenges to profit. Oftentimes this means learning about or implementing some form of technology: additive manufacturing, digital twins, virtual and augmented reality, digital connectivity, artificial intelligence — take your pick.
And that pace of innovation and change in manufacturing is happening faster than ever before, according to the Center for Automotive Research's Abhay Vadhavkar.
"Even within the walls of the factories, that innovation is occurring. But what you notice here is that the time period for each one of these disruptions is shrinking," he said of the time it took to evolve from physical power to steam power, from mechanical power to electrical power, and from early computing power to Industry 4.0.
"You went from a 100-year time period for a change — an abrupt change — to 80 years to 60 years to 20," said Vadhavkar, director of materials and manufacturing for CAR. "So how long will this last if you don't get on board?"
Most manufacturers, if not all of them, have to take steps now to stay on the cutting edge of technology, as it moves faster and faster, he said. But this also means tapping into the next generation — millennials like those two art students I mentioned earlier — for their unique perspectives and skill sets.
"Who will be running our future factories?" Vadhavkar asked. "It's the kids that grew up on video games and not pinball machines."
As someone who still enjoys playing video games — I like Japanese role-playing games for their storylines and soundtracks — that line stuck with me. It highlights that change — from a more mechanical world to this internet-driven, digital and connected manufacturing environment — and also calls attention to the fact that younger generations grew up with more exposure to advanced technology.
I'm thinking about my early years as a video gamer playing Sonic the Hedgehog on a Sega Genesis console compared with today, where my Sony PlayStation 4 essentially operates as a second computer.
So, the next time you're in dire need of a worker with high-tech skills, maybe stop by your local GameStop. Chances are you'll find someone equipped with a tech-heavy skill set who can also multitask, problem-solve and remain calm under pressure. And if not, you'll at least walk away with a new time-consuming hobby.
LaForest is Detroit-based Plastics News staff reporter. Follow her on Twitter @audreylafrst.