Sue Mucha

Workers need to understand the “why” of manufacturing and how to manage processes.

The pace of technological change continues to increase. Products are getting smaller and more challenging to build. The increased levels of automation needed to build those products are driving a need to rethink the role of the personnel associated with those machines. The worker who fills those new jobs needs to understand the “why” of manufacturing and have the critical thinking skills to manage processes rather than just run machines.

One example of this role rethinking is happening at Burton Industries, an electronics manufacturing services (EMS) provider whose primary manufacturing facility is in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“We believe it is our responsibility to stay in front of the technology needs and expectations of our customers,” said Gary Burnett, president and CEO, Burton Industries. “While we’ve made the investment in the equipment needed to support advanced manufacturing challenges, we also see the need to create an internal culture where every employee recognizes the very important role they play in helping our customers succeed. To that end, we have moved away from the traditional model of machine operators and inspectors supported by engineering and quality assurance managers in our surface mount device (SMD) area. Our model now requires all SMD area team members to obtain and possess skill level and training equal to process engineers. Each team member now has a training plan designed to accomplish that. To incentivize that extra effort, we’ve made these positions some of the highest-paid in our facility.”

The company focused on launching this effort predominantly in the SMD area for two reasons. First, on average, 90% of the components placed are surface mount. Second, production is predominately focused on high-mix, low-to-medium-volume manufacturing for customers with variable demand. In order to support customer requirements, the SMD area needs a team that can flexibly move around the area as daily demand changes.

This transition is still a work in progress. To start, the company defined five position expertise classifications for its SMD area:

  • Entry level
  • Intermediate level
  • Advanced level
  • Expert level
  • Advanced expert.

Entry-level associates complete approximately 22 hr. of job-specific training, including basic operating procedures on every piece of equipment in the SMD area. They complete another 9 hr. of training related to OSHA and general workplace safety training. At the intermediate level, training expands to include documentation packages, equipment maintenance, inspection procedures, quality concepts and processes, and customer satisfaction. Those in the intermediate classification also pursue IPC-A-610 certification. At the advanced level, training moves to machine programming and rework procedures. At the expert level, associates receive manufacturer-provided training on all equipment in the work cell, plus start to train in the procedures related to support of the area, such as software validation and incoming material inspection procedures. They also pursue IPC certification in repair/rework. At the advanced expert level, associates become a mentor/trainer to the team and pursue SMTA Process Certification. They are responsible for SMD area process decisions, maintaining zero defects, managing continuous improvement efforts and equipment validation. As currently envisioned, the total process requires nearly two years to complete required training and associated testing.

“There wasn’t a template out there for us to use. We had to create this,” said Rosemary Kazik, human resource director.

In establishing this factory within a factory focus, the company opened all the positions within the SMD and allowed all employees to apply for these Learn 2 Earn positions. The expectation is that everyone applying would be put on a training path designed to reach expert level or higher. Workers disinclined to apply had options too.

“There were people who chose not to apply for this reengineered job,” said Kazik. “Nobody lost a job. We moved them to other areas to see where they would fit best. We will eventually reengineer all production areas in the company, so those who have moved will be on a path to higher competency levels and compensation. In most cases, people who preferred to be transferred were new to SMD and were less confident of their skill. This gives them more time to learn jobs in the areas they’ve transferred to and build that confidence. At the same time, we had people outside of the SMD area who wanted the challenge.”

As with all new initiatives, there have been challenges. Developing new, explanatory documentation was one.

“The team will be doing everything from stencil design to build when fully trained. We could find training material on the ‘how,’ but we’ve had to create our own material to explain the ‘why.’ For the team to make the right decisions to effectively manage their SMD factory, they need to have a clear understanding of the ‘why’ behind the decisions,” said Darren Pieczynski, solutions engineer.

Another challenge was keeping manufacturing running smoothly while training was underway. At program inception, 14 employees were classified to the five skill levels based on their experience and skills base. They are required to complete all training and tests to officially qualify for those positions within the next 12 to 18 months. As a result, work schedules need to include time for training.

Director of manufacturing Monica Benson called the amount of planning “exciting”: “The success we’ve enjoyed so far, and the success we will have, is due to the planning. The goal is that everyone will be cross-trained in the cell. The training plan and schedule really maps everything out to get an amazing amount of training for a good number of people in a short period of time. Yet, we have to be cognizant that in a schedule this tightly packed, something like a bad flu season could slow us down.”

How do employees feel about the new program?

“I think including the ‘why’ of what we do helps folks who think out of the box,” said Ayricka Bailey, machine operator intermediate. “If we know the ‘why,’ it helps us fix problems without disrupting things. If I change something, does this create a problem? The ‘why’ tells me that. I think this helps the team efforts.”

“When everyone works as a team, it is more interesting,” adds Greg Vallone, senior operator, advanced expert. “We don’t have to struggle because we are approaching this with a pit crew mentality. When people are struggling with a job they have difficulty performing, they don’t want to come to work. But in a pit crew, no one person has a mountain to climb. Everyone knows how they fit in.”

“There are clear guidelines to move to the next level. The structure and organization work well,” said Jacob Cadeau, SMD machine operator, intermediate.

“I like the fast-paced environment. It keeps your brain moving. Every day there are new continuous improvement challenges. We want to be flexible for our customers, and translating that ability into an efficient line changeover strategy takes work. We are measuring downtime with stop clocks and utilizing other visual factory tools to ensure the team can proactively work on continuous improvement,” said Zach Wangelin, SMD work cell leader, who is currently qualifying as an advanced expert.

There have also been benefits from a recruiting standpoint. As Kazik says, Burton wants employees to see the opportunities and career paths. “That’s a great recruiting tool because most employers in our area are not offering this type of pathway to success. We don’t let people fail. We’ll find another path for those unable to achieve at least the expert level in SMD.”

While still a work in progress, Burton Industries’ approach appears to be paying dividends for all concerned: a more flexible, self-directed work team, lower turnover and a path to success for employees willing to Learn 2 Earn.

Susan Mucha is president of Powell-Mucha Consulting Inc. (, a consulting firm providing strategic planning, training and market positioning support to EMS companies and author of Find It. Book It. Grow It. A Robust Process for Account Acquisition in Electronics Manufacturing Services;

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