Let Your Engineers Grow Print E-mail
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Written by Adrian Cheong   
Thursday, 02 August 2012 18:20

Invest in people like you invest in machinery.

The effort to establish better, more efficient, and cost-effective manufacturing at high volumes has left little room for personnel development. Instead, manufacturing support, yield sustenance and machine maintenance activities take precedence. With rapid advancement of technology and innovations, engineering skills will eventually be obsolete.

Developing engineers’ skills is an investment for a company. It actually helps improve the business by enabling the organization to meet or exceed its goals. Examples can be found linking training to improved revenue and profit. According to a 2008 study by APQC, IBM and Workforce Management,1 organizations that invest in training are more likely to produce greater revenue per employee than those that invest less. Another article shows how profit margins can increase by more than 20% when employers invest in education and training.2 Research published in ITWorld3 describes how training expenditures and total stockholder returns (TSR) are linked such that spending $680 per employee per year can increase TSR by 6% the following year.

Returns from the investment on personnel development come in various forms. The increase in revenue stems from the following:

Improved effectiveness and accuracy. Efficient problem solving comes with experience and skill. Experience enables the engineer to rectify defects, improve process efficiency, maintain manufacturing equipment efficiency, and so on. This results in improved yield.

Keeping up with technology. Part of your engineer’s development includes keeping up with the trends and advancements of the technologies employed by the product being manufactured, as well as the manufacturing processes. In doing so, the engineer is equipped with the knowledge to deploy the latest and greatest manufacturing equipments or processes that create fewer defects or produce higher product yields.

Take for example the clock speeds of memory devices on PC motherboards. They have been increasing rapidly over the past two decades. In 1990, FPM or EDO RAMs were clocking at about 25Mhz to 40Mhz; now, DDR3 SDRAMs are clocking at 800Mhz. In 20 years, the clock speeds have increased by 20 to 30 times. This changes how components are tested. At 800Mhz clock speeds, it is not possible to place probes on the bus lines to monitor the signals without distorting the very signals that you want to monitor, as was easily done when testing FPM or EDO RAMs. Memory devices have to be tested indirectly through the memory controller or through the CPU. Without this knowledge, the engineer would have no idea how to test these components. They would probably erroneously think that it is still possible to probe the busses and test the component that way.

In areas like product development, experienced, knowledgeable R&D engineers will be able to, for example, lay out high-speed busses correctly. Having the personal experience in R&D would produce better designs that require less prototyping, thus reducing the product cycle and speed product time-to-market.

Build customer confidence. With effective and current engineering resources in manufacturing capable of employing the latest technologies and enabling adequate processes to filter out defects, the customer will be confident in the quality of manufacturing, thus maintaining or improving the company’s brand image.
In the pre-sales situation, customers gain confidence when talking to knowledgeable and experienced engineers. Your customer needs to be confident you are knowledgeable about their needs and able to describe how your product will be able fulfill them.

Aside from business reasons, there are other reasons why developing your engineers is important:

Improving employee satisfaction. Employees of companies that organize adequate or regular training for them recognize that their employers care for them. This develops a sense of belonging to the company that is willing to invest in them. However, some employers may feel reluctant to spend on training because they feel it is a risk. The risk is that the employees would then be better equipped to find a job in another company and get better pay. While this may sometimes be true, the fact is that with the training, the employees will be better equipped to do a better job in the current company. Successful companies will continue to keep the employees engaged and motivated, while contributing to the success of the company.

Building a succession plan. Managers will be directors; directors will be VPs. As managers move up the corporate ladder, somebody needs to fill the gaps they leave behind. To ensure the right person is in these important positions, training and people development is essential in the preparation of the successful candidates.

Sharing of experience. One quick and cheap way to get everyone within the same organization to improve their skills is to share experience. In general, when thinking about “sharing of experience,” it is often expected that more experienced engineers will “share their experience” with less experienced ones. However, in today’s lean and mean organizations, often engineers work independently on their projects. So, the experience gained from a certain project may be unique. This could mean that even the newest member in the organization could, through working on a unique project, have knowledge that others lack. Thus sharing of experience across the board is important.

How to Grow?

With people, one needs to be flexible; there is no one-way-fits-all method. Communication between engineer and manager is most important in crafting a development plan that will improve the engineer’s skills to achieve the company or business goals.

There are many ways to improve the skill level of employees. Deciding which method depends on the job scope of the engineer, the business objectives, and the aptitude of the engineer.

On-the-job training is one common practice. It is experiential training through working on real projects or activities with the relevant expertise at hand to guide the learner. For an engineer tasked to develop a test for a new product, an experienced engineer can show him the ropes by running through the test development process, then as the development progresses, check the work at various stages to ensure it is progressing correctly. For more experienced engineers, it is usually appropriate to manage the tasks by objectives and monitor the progress at various stages. Direction of the project can be corrected during each review. Development opportunities for these engineers lie in the experience gained through the thought process, planning, correction and adjustment to achieve the objectives.

Traditional classroom training, where multiple attendees get educated at one go in a controlled environment, is popular practice, but the cost of the training and the engineer time to attend this training is usually daunting. For example, engineers supporting in-circuit test systems running on their manufacturing lines should attend the classes organized by the vendor of that in-circuit test system to better understand how to use the testers effectively. There would be classes for engineers of different levels and even classes focused on specific applications, like boundary scan. Engineers in specialized fields like marketing can attend classes conducted by experienced marketers who describe best practices and metrics that can be used in their daily work.

The Internet age offers other ways to improve employee knowledge and skills. As most work is performed on computers, engineers can learn the features of the equipment through online training and later practice on their own equipment. Web seminars, forums, and clips downloadable from equipment vendor websites are some of the avenues to learn and even ask questions.

Many web training or webinars are free these days. Social media channels like YouTube carry how-to videos, which can be a fun way to encourage education. Equipment vendors have populated YouTube with training videos showing how various features on their equipment can be used. But these are usually ad hoc, or the discussion may be too generic for your organization. For something more structured, there is generally a charge to engage consultants or experts to develop or deliver the training.

In crafting the development plan, based on the desired outcome, the relevant combination of classroom, hands-on, online and on-the-job training with a mentor is likely required to achieve the business needs.

Just like any asset in the organization, human assets need regular upgrades to support current or new trends. If the organization is able to view its engineers as assets, it will invest in these assets by planning for their development. The planning should consider the desired outcome from the training that should be aligned with the business goals. The engineer’s growth would be geared toward correcting deficiencies that impede the business growth. If you let your engineers grow, your business will grow too.

References

1. Rachel Williams and Lawson Arnett, “The ROI of Employee Training and Development,” October 2008, white paper.
2. Laurie J. Bassi, Jens Ludwig, Daniel P. McMurrer and Mark Van Buren, “Profiting from Learning,” September 2000, ASTD/Saba white paper.
3. David Essex, “ASTD Study: Employee Training Increases a Company’s ROI,” ITWorld, December 2000.

Adrian Cheong is product marketing manager at Agilent Technologies (agilent.com); This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Last Updated on Friday, 03 August 2012 12:37
 

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