Plant engineering and maintenance involve managing a manufacturing plant’s mechanical and electrical systems, assets, and equipment. As more smart technologies are implemented into manufacturing facilities, this job also includes managing automated systems.
A widening skills gap and a workforce shortage have driven many manufacturing companies to automate more tasks within production. This has increased the need for competent plant and maintenance engineers within manufacturing facilities. Though advanced manufacturing technologies have helped manufacturers offset labor shortages, a highly trained workforce is required to maintain these technologies.
The Role of Plant Engineering
Historically, the role of a plant engineer is to oversee the installation of new technologies and systems, and to troubleshoot problems with them. With the onset of Industry 4.0, new and improved tech for manufacturing has increased significantly. This change has redefined some of a plant engineer’s responsibilities.
Manufacturers are increasingly adopting automation and other smart technologies, and this has caused plant engineers to not only be responsible for the implementation of new machines and systems, but also to determine how new or existing technologies can improve efficiency and increase production within a manufacturing facility.
Plant engineers of the Industry 4.0 era must be able to think critically about how the systems within a facility work together and about which advanced technologies could improve current production operations. They also have to be able to solve problems quickly and resolutely. Implementation problems or errors with any systems or technologies can be quite costly for manufacturing companies, which need to have a highly skilled plant engineer to minimize the losses.
Aside from solving a production bottleneck or implementing more efficient technologies, plant engineers also have to maintain all of these systems. This requires a thorough knowledge of advanced manufacturing technologies and an understanding of how they’re used in production. As manufacturing facilities become more connected through automation, sensors, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, plant engineers with a working knowledge of these smart technologies are becoming a necessity.
The Role of Plant Maintenance Engineers
Whereas plant engineers are more focused on systems and technologies, plant maintenance engineers work on manufacturing equipment and other assets. If machinery is not properly maintained, then unexpected equipment breakdowns can cause costly downtime, potentially affecting the whole production line. These sudden disruptions have led manufacturers to adopt predictive maintenance techniques and technologies to combat unexpected downtime.
Engineers use data from machine sensors to set predictive maintenance schedules for working on machines and production equipment during planned downtime, and to avoid machine breakdowns that require costly repairs and extensive downtime. Aside from cost savings, predictive maintenance can also help to extend the lifespan of machinery, allowing manufacturers to experience the full value of the equipment.
Though it is possible to set maintenance schedules based on insights from manual data analysis, implementing artificial intelligence (AI) into production systems can automate predictive maintenance schedules. AI can sift through more data more efficiently, and then alert maintenance engineers to any potential issues.
Maintenance engineers often have extensive firsthand knowledge of the machines they service and can intuitively tell when maintenance is required. Implementing AI-enabled predictive maintenance helps reduce manual work for these engineers. AI can alert maintenance teams to errors or irregularities, freeing up maintenance engineers to spend more time strategizing maintenance plans and less time monitoring machinery for issues.
Upskilling the Workforce
Plant engineering and maintenance roles are evolving because of the smart technologies being implemented into manufacturing facilities. These advanced technologies require a workforce that understands them and knows how to work with them. That’s why manufacturers need to be focused on upskilling their current workforce.
There is already a labor shortage within the manufacturing industry, and it will take years to train new and existing generations to fill open positions. New positions are also opening because of advanced manufacturing technologies such as automation, cybersecurity, and AI. Manufacturers must prioritize workforce development and incentivize current workers to acquire the technical skills needed to work with smart technologies.
If you’re a Southeast U.S. manufacturer looking to implement workforce development initiatives, attend SOUTHTEC. This manufacturing event brings together manufacturing professionals, companies and institutions from throughout the region and the country to network and discuss the state of U.S. manufacturing, as well as how to advance it.