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Does Mason hold the key to filling in Ohio's manufacturing skill gap?

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Posted at 8:50 AM, Oct 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-14 08:54:59-04

MASON, Ohio — Industry 4.0 has come to North America. Mason, to be specific.

Festo Corporation celebrated the grand opening of its new Mason facility Friday, which will eventually assemble and distribute automated manufacturing and process-control equipment to all of North and South America.

The company kicked off its grand-opening weekend by holding its 15th annual International Trade Press Conference at the new, $50 million facility Thursday, attracting media from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

“It’s a real coup to be able to attract a company that has such a broad touch across sectors that are essential to the knowledge economy that we’re working hard to create in Mason and in Greater Cincinnati,” said Mason Economic Development Director Michele Blair.

Industry 4.0 is what German business leaders are calling what they believe to be the fourth Industrial Revolution, driven by the need to further integrate computer systems, the digitization and interconnection of products and services, and the emergence of businesses offering custom products and services.

Festo’s Mason regional service center is a demonstration of what that looks like. Despite the cavernous size of the facility’s assembly and logistics areas, the center employs just 170 workers, with a goal of 250 by 2018. Instead of pickers wandering long aisles working to fulfill orders, an automated warehouse system brings products directly to employee-manned workstations amid a maze of conveyor belts, computers and barcode scanners.

Festo’s components are manufactured in factories on four continents. However, those components are assembled at regional service centers — like the one in Mason — according to individual customer specifications. It can be done more quickly and more precisely than ever before, Schilly said. Instead of spending weeks designing new equipment, engineers can devise custom machinery in minutes.

“In a few minutes, you can be at a stage where you can place an order, and the order will be translated immediately in the factory,” Schilly said. “This is really game-changing, because nobody else has this capability.”

Where human help is still needed is on the assembly side of the equation. But despite a strong talent pool, vetting and hiring employees with the right skill set is proving to be an increasingly difficult challenge for companies dependent on advanced manufacturing equipment.

Festo's assembly line

“What we have here are very flexible manufacturing services,” Festo COO Yannick Schilly said. “This requires a high level of qualification from the operator and another skill set in this environment.

“In this environment, you need advanced mechatronic skills.”

As the modern manufacturing environment rapidly changes, Festo has put an emphasis on educating the employees of its customers and the workforce of the community. The company has an entire division dedicated to education, Festo Didactic, and about 1,000 of the company’s 18,000 employees worldwide work on the education side.

In partnership with Sinclair College and several regional manufacturing companies, Didactic is piloting a paid, two-year degree program in mechatronics, which combines computer science with mechanical and electrical engineering. The program is modeled after a German apprenticeship model, though apprenticeships in Germany are typically twice as long.

Though the pilot class is very small, local community colleges and vocational schools are already expressing “huge interest,” said Carolin McCaffrey, Didactic’s head of sales in the U.S. and Canada.

That means Mason could become the birthplace of the antidote for Ohio’s growing skill gap. McCaffrey estimates that 82 percent of Ohio’s 30,000 unfilled positions remain unfilled because they can’t find workers with the right skill set. Though we’re not in crisis mode yet, she said, “we could be very quickly.”

Part of the reason Festo chose Mason was because of its talent pool and the many companies in the bioscience and technology companies that call the city home, Blair said. But when it comes to site selection, it’s all about location.

Mason was the perfect central location for Festo

As it outgrew its old regional service center in Long Island, N.Y., four years ago, the company decided to relocate to the Greater Cincinnati region because of the area’s logistic advantages, Schilly said. About 60 percent of Festo’s North American customers are within 600 miles of Mason.

“We try to be in the region, for the region so that we can offer our customers very short lead times, very flexible reaction times, and offer the biggest variety of possible configurations,” Schilly said.

The possibility of reconfiguration is part of why Festo chose its 47-acre site along Columbia Road. As the business grows, the facility can grow with it. And so can Mason.

“As a city, we work very hard to reach out to national and international companies,” Mason Mayor Victor Kidd said. “It’s important because the synergies that we have together create a conducive climate for further growth.”