Why automate? Why not?

In this Big Picture Interview, we explore pen and paper on the plant floor and other oddities from a Millennial’s perspective.

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

In 2016, Allie Schwertner took her freshly issued B.S. in chemical engineering from The Ohio State University and went to work for Rockwell Automation. Her eight-month training program, which she’s completing as a part of a class of 24 new account managers, wraps up in March. A first-generation college student, Schwertner spoke with Plant Services about what drew her to the automation industry and what has surprised her about the state of U.S. manufacturing today. Chief among the eye-openers: how much room many companies have to grow from an automation perspective.

PS: You’re a chemical engineer. What led you to go work for an automation company??

AS: In college I had no idea on anything about the automation industry. One of my friends just happened to mention Rockwell Automation because she had interned with them. Once I learned about (them) – I feel like they definitely are the future. I’m really into the technology and the ability to help others.

The fact that we’re going to be able to use less energy creating more-efficient processes, it’s been completely amazing to see. And learning about the mobility that that’s going to provide. What I’m seeing (though) is that industry is focused on traditional products and services.

When I was recruited, it was about the idea of creating solutions for our customers that are going to take them to the next level. I think that’s really the big push with the younger generation, having that big picture idea.

PS: How is mobile technology changing either your job or the jobs that Rockwell Automation influences through its products and services?

AS: One of the big ideas that my manager has been stressing is this idea of a connected enterprise. All of these individual machines in the plant will be able to talk to each other and then the whole system will be able to talk to us when we’re not even at the plant. People won’t always have to be at that location to see something going down. It is happening right now; just not everyone is making that shift.

PS: Real-time data access really is incredible.

AS: As a Millennial, we’re used to that. We are used to having answers right away and I’m shocked that places don’t have that. Some are still writing down inventory on paper. It’s actually amazing to me.

PS: What else has surprised you about this industry?

AS: I assumed that manufacturing plants were all automated. Like, I assumed that they would be able to stop the machine from one place (without having to be there). I’m amazed by how manual the processes are.

PS: We see some factories that are 100% automated and almost all digital, and some, like high-end chocolate manufacturers, where almost everything is done by hand. Do you think those that haven’t made the shift really see where things are going?

AS: I think it’s really hard to convince a lot of the people who are making the executive decisions. To me it’s hard to understand – why wouldn’t you switch and make this all automated? Could it be a high upfront cost? There’s just so much potential to (save) money from lack of errors, lower downtime.

PS: Now that you’ve been on the job a while, what about this career or this industry has lined up with what you expected?

AS: The ability to help, like when you’re finding a solution, is amazing. I really enjoy helping people, and I’m able to see when we provide a solution, and the other engineers are getting excited, and that’s a very big deal. I wanted something where I’m making an impact. And I really wanted to have a position where I’d be able to gain experience across multiple industries, not just work in a lab all day. It’s been incredible, moving around in all these different spaces.

I think the discipline of chemical engineering opens so many doors. It’s like learning how to think. Being able to use our generation’s mindset of always wanting to be better, always wanting to change things ... You don’t want to step on too many toes, but (if you) use it as a benefit and connect with the right people, you’ll be able to move forward.

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