Automated machine operator: fast-changing job at the heart of the factory of the future
As we embrace a new breed of manufacturing environment, the operators who coordinate machines must also evolve to become more versatile, performance-focused and autonomous. We zoom in on the transformations underway and how Safran is supporting them.
At Safran, the factory of the future is already up and running, as a look at the state-of-the-art equipment installed at sites in recent years reveals – from Safran Helicopter's turbine blade production line in Bordes to the machining unit at Safran Landing Systems' Wheels & Brakes division in Molsheim. Four machines operate around the clock in Molsheim, under the watchful eye of teams working in 3 x 8 hr. shifts. A supervision system enables the operators to run and coordinate a production job and, at the same, time obtain automatic dimension readouts, consult detailed incident reports, check tooling allocation, perform preventive maintenance, and reset (i.e. restart) the machine after troubleshooting and repairs.
Julien Laeng is one of the operators tasked with keeping a close watch on the system, which he sees as the "star" of the production shop: "Ours was the first Safran plant to invest in this type of equipment," he says proudly. "Colleagues from other companies have visited to see how it operates and they're always very impressed. For me, it's the Formula One of machining tools, not so much for the automation features as the high level of precision it offers. I'd worked on numerical control machines before but there were always some adjustments to be done on the control panel. With this system, more and more functions are performed remotely without having to even touch the machine! Plus, reporting is a lot more detailed for everything – from machining duration and tool wear to the time and cause of incidents. If an event occurs, I know exactly which parameters need checking and at which stage operations need to be restarted."
For Olivier Horaist, Vice-President for Production and Purchasing and Job Coordinator, it's nothing short of a paradigm shift. "The operator no longer simply coordinates a machine," he explains. "It's a full-fledged automated production system comprising a large number of increasingly complex machines. Operators don't handle parts but an entire facility. It's no longer about reacting to, but anticipating events, thanks to the continuous stream of information available. This means operators must be capable of quickly analyzing and interpreting data, understanding the overall production process and, more generally, responding swiftly to incidents. As a result, soft skills are as – if not – more important than technical know-how."
Keenly aware of these evolving requirements, Safran is deploying a range of training tools to help operators build on their skill sets. Among them, CampusFab, a leading-edge training facility set up just outside Paris in conjunction with other firms in 2016, dedicated entirely to the factory of the future. New programs were recently added to the center's portfolio covering assembly, maintenance, machining, additive manufacturing and digital continuity. "The first sessions will kick off this fall," says François Siegel, CampusFab training manager. "The idea is to enable operators to acquire the additional skill sets they need to adapt to changing technologies and equipment through a series of sessions lasting a couple of days. These programs will also be included in the Safran University training catalogue, making them available to everyone across the Group." Additional courses will also be delivered through France's CFA Apprentice Training Centers. What's more, several Safran companies already offer continuous training as part of nationally recognized vocational training for the metallurgy industry (CQPM) or through their in-house training schools.
Expanded, more rewarding role
So how are these changes perceived by the operators themselves? "I'm aware the job's changing and there's less actual machining involved, but I enjoy the data analysis aspects," says Julien Laeng. "It gives me more responsibility. It's my job, for example, to alert the methods technicians if I notice a dimensional error. And if there's a failure, I have to respond quickly, since the shop's activities depend largely on the machines in our unit. What it comes down to is actually doing fewer things myself but, on the other hand, being trusted to oversee a brand-new, highly complex piece of equipment that's at the heart of everything the division does. This high-tech dimension is very rewarding."