General Mills often uses broadcasts from community colleges, supplier headquarters, or other locations as a worker training tool.

You can have the best packaging machinery in the world, but if you can’t get people to run it right, you’re in trouble.

Worrying about being able to find employees may seem incongruous these days, with unemployment hovering stubbornly around 9.5%. But the increasing complexity of packaging machinery means that even when a lot of people are looking for jobs, it may be harder than you think to find the right ones.

“It’s so complicated. The biggest problem is, the skill gap has grown by leaps and bounds,” says Nancy Cobb, a trainer facilitator for PMMI.

The trend is by no means confined to packaging. According to a 2009 report from the National Association of Manufacturers, 32% of manufacturing firms surveyed reported “moderate to severe shortages” of qualified personnel, and 38% foresaw increased shortages in the near future.

As with all industrial equipment, packaging machinery has evolved, resulting in significant changes to operator responsibilities. Increased electronics mean increased automation, which means fewer people on a line. It also means those fewer people often have more demanding tasks.

“Operators in many plants are being asked to do more than just operate machines,” notes Maria Ferrate, vice president for education and workforce development at PMMI. “They are being asked to do things like basic troubleshooting, adjust machines for changeover, maybe even do some basic sanitation.

“Traditionally operators were not allowed to handle tools or change settings-but in today’s lean manufacturing environment, plants need them to participate more fully in the effective operation of the line. In order to perform these tasks, operators need to have a better understanding of the equipment basics, they need to have troubleshooting skills and they need to understand more sophisticated safety procedures.”

The increased versatility that electronics bring to machinery translates to increased responsibility for line workers, says Joyce Hodel, a spokesperson for Kraft Foods.

“As with virtually everything today, hourly employees are managing through the pace of change more quickly than in the past,” Hodel says. “Most of our plants have numerous projects underway that impact production occurring simultaneously.  So employees are not only personally adjusting to change but in many cases, they are actively involved in making the changes or even helping to lead them.”

The servo surge

Electronics have made a huge difference in the operation and capabilities of packaging machinery. The mechanical linkages that once governed a machine’s axes of motion gave away years ago to servo motors, rending them much more versatile and easier to watch and maintain. At least, in theory.

One of the paradoxes of modern packaging machinery is that the more such control the operator has, the less he or she feels in control. At bottom, this is largely a function of being uncomfortable with the electronic operator interface.

“One of the hardest things for operators is to let go of that sense of control,” Cobb says. “Because now, it’s all about looking at the touchscreen panel.”
,br> Machine operators have always had a tendency to try to fine-tune their machines by fiddling with the settings. This habit can be especially problematic with electronically controlled equipment.

“A lot of the equipment manufacturers really just don’t want them to touch anything,” Cobb says. “Before, if I had one piece of equipment and I made  a setting change, it might affect my machine.. Now, if you change anything on a computer control system, you’re going to have effects upstream and downstream.”

Those effects can be hard for machine operators to comprehend. Above all, say training experts, today’s machine operators need to understand the overall system and their place in it.


“The one thing that we find oftentimes is that the operator doesn’t grasp the larger system,” says Gary Orr, an industrial training consultant. “They know their role, their piece of equipment. But if the operator understands what’s going on upstream and downstream, so they have more of a systems perspective of what this piece of equipment is and where it ties into the overall process, it allows them to make a lot better decisions then.”

That’s the way it works at General Mills, according to Kathy Carlson, training and development director.
,br> “Instead of running a particular unit operation or a particular piece of the line, they now have accountability for the entire system,” Carlson says. “Instead of just being at the bagger, for example, they may own it from the bagger to the palletizer.”

The overall goal, Carlson says, is to get machine operators thinking of their jobs in terms of solving and preventing problems, not just keeping their machines running.

“Our focus is completely on trying to increase uptime,” she says. “It’s not about fixing a jam right away. It’s about understanding what happened there so that it doesn’t happen again. It takes a little more time, and that’s kind of the paradigm shift we have going on right now. It’s figuring out, instead of the quick fix, which is how we used to train, now it’s more problem-solving. To do that, we’ve had to lay a much deeper foundation in technical skills along with problem-solving processes.”

Comfort level

To get that foundation in technical skills requires getting operators comfortable with computers. Even as pervasive as computers are today, that can sometimes be a stretch.

“Increased automation and increased connection with computers has just made it more challenging for operators,” Carlson says. “For those who have been around for a while and aren’t used to working that way, they had to learn a new skill.”

Training at General Mills is fairly standardized for new operators. The company uses standard techniques like JTA (Job Task Analysis) and DACUM (Develop a Curriculum) to set up the basic framework of equipment training.

“Essentially, those outline exactly what the operator needs to know about how to run that piece of equipment,” Carlson says.

At General Mills, training takes several forms. There is a classroom component and possibly a distance-learning portion, which typically is a webcast broadcast to up to five area plants from local community colleges or an equipment supplier. Then there is a hands-on component, where operators must demonstrate their proficiency with the equipment. This can be done either on a simulator or trainer, if one is available, or on the actual machine.

“We typically wouldn’t use a [running] system to show fault analysis, but we would definitely have the operator come along with us and start it up,” Carlson says. “If there’s a problem with the system, [we would] show them how to shut it down properly and get it back up properly, how to read the computer electronics behind it and the data output.”

Suppliers' role

Suppliers are an important resource for General Mills, as they are for most end users with training issues. Many suppliers have training programs that include various forms of outreach, either in person or remotely.

Manufacturers try to lay a foundation for training by making their machines as intuitive as possible. “A picture is a lot easier than reading out of a manual,” says Peter Zepf, director of service and human resources for Wexxar, a division of Pro Mach that makes case-forming and sealing equipment. Carrying this principle over to touchscreens, Pro Mach companies design their human-machine interfaces (HMIs) to lay out information clearly: “Remove the thinking from the operator and [have] the machine alert them what the problem is.”

Wexxar puts together a training outline and tests for operators and maintenance technicians on each piece of equipment.

 “We’ll go into a plant and we’ll do a classroom, whether it be in a boardroom or at the machine itself,” Zepf says. A test follows to reinforce the lessons: “The whole idea of the not to pass or fail. It’s to see what you retained and haven’t retained, and let’s go over the items that you haven’t retained.”

Like many suppliers, Wexxar and other Pro Mach companies use trainers qualified through the PMMI Certified Trainer program. (See “PMMI program certifies machinery trainers” below.)

The big picture

However it’s done, the point of training is to make workers comfortable with their tasks and aware of the larger significance of their job to the operation as a whole.

“An operator in many cases doesn’t always know what’s happening because they don’t understand the equipment and in some cases, they’re fearful of it,” Cobb says.

Once they understand the equipment better, they are more likely to understand the importance of teamwork and communication.

“Whatever they do has so much impact upstream and downstream that you have to have some communication going on,” Cobb says. “Not that you didn’t have that before, but now there’s fewer people around, and they’re doing more different kinds of things.”

That added responsibility may be daunting at first. But if it’s presented to workers as a challenge, and backed up with the kind of training and resources that makes it possible to meet the challenge, workers will enthusiastically take on the task.

As an ongoing supplement to training, General Mills has regular audits where operators are “grilled” on their ideas on how to help the plant meet or exceed standards, Carlson says.

“During those audits I have seen operators teary-eyed, saying things like, ‘I used to drag myself to work every day, and now I’m an operator,’ she says. “This instills great pride in them, and the other thing that’s happening is the work is actually becoming easier. The systems are more reliable. They have more of it to cover, but they can.” 

PMMI trainer facilitator Sheree Evans-Metcalf gives a presentation to future PMMI trainers.

PMMI program certifies machinery trainers

Working through PMMI’s Certified Trainer program is one of the best established ways to get help with training a workforce to handle the demands of today’s packaging machinery.

Certified Trainer is a train-the-trainer program that provides a steady supply of personnel qualified to help workers understand their equipment. Machinery supplier companies and end users are the two biggest participants in the program. Certified trainers work in a variety of venues, including PMMI webinars, workshops organized by community/technical colleges, and training session at end user sites.

Trainers attend two-day workshops, which PMMI holds across the U.S. and Canada. PMMI also can conduct them on-site for companies with eight or more students. To complete the course, trainers must complete post-workshop assignments that include an e-Learning course on safety and training, and creating a set of training documents they can use as part of their own training program.

The certification is good for two years, during which trainers are expected to participate in one continuing education class per year. Trainers also need to submit an annual $80 recertification fee and have someone they train complete a feedback form and submit to PMMI.

Many supplier companies use the Certified Trainer program for their service and maintenance personnel. Tim Kent, marketing director for Raque Food Systems and himself a PMMI-certified trainer, says the training program both paralleled and went beyond what Raque had developed on its own. “The PMMI system went much further in that they emphasized preparing for training,” Kent says. “We typically just hit the floor running-we’re oriented toward having the customer producing product as quickly as possible. Whereas the PMMI system is: ‘that’s good, but you can do better if you talk to your customer first.’” Issues to talk about include finding out how many people need training, what materials they have to do the training with, and scheduling time for machine availability. “Training in front of a classroom is great, but it does not beat training in front of the machine,” Kent says.

For more on the PMMI Certified Trainer Program,