Jim Fitch is the CEO of Noria Corporation and is the founding director and a former board member of International Council for Machinery Lubrication (ICML). Paul Hiller is ICML Marketing Manager. Jim and Paul recently spoke with Plant Services editor in chief Thomas Wilk at the SMRP Annual Conference about the importance of industrial training, overcoming challendges associated with oil analysis, and the new ICML 55® standard.
PS: I figured we’d take this opportunity to talk about some of the larger trends that we see in the asset management and maintenance market. We all heard this morning in the opening session at this event, that there's almost 1,400 people registered for the event, and they had a confirmed attendance of more than 1,240, which is now setting records for the SMRP Annual Conference. It feels like with the dip we had from COVID, we're trying to bounce back as hard as we can. So let me ask you both this first question: on behalf of ICML and Noria, you both see a wide cut of industry. Do you get the sense that industry is bouncing back and in strength the same way that this event has? What kind of challenges are you picking up on these days?
JF: This conference two years ago, I think we were in St. Louis, I'm pretty sure the attendance was right around half of what it is this week. Why it was that, of course it was related to COVID. My sense is that we have leapfrogged over the COVID era, and we're back to business as usual. That's what we're seeing at Noria as well. Noria has a conference called Reliable Plant, we run it every year. This year, we just happened to be in Orlando, and next year we'll be in Chicago. And we're also seeing numbers come right back to normal, which is good both in the exhibit hall, as well as the attendees, the practitioners that are coming to these conferences. So that's a good thing.
PS: Part of what that tells me is that plants are comfortable letting their workers move out of the plant, and they can afford that temporary loss in headcount either because they have enough labor or resources to do the job, or they figure they can manage that resource gap. For a while it was sort of touch and go in factories, they couldn't let anybody go.
JF: Well, it's always difficult, sometimes even more so when the economy is strong, because these plants are in a sold out position, they can sell everything they can make. That means they need to keep the machines running, and that means they have to have staff in the plant to make sure they're running. And to take them out to go to a conference can sometimes be really, really difficult. But you know, they’ve got to think of the long game here. They’ve got to make sure that they're managing maintenance and reliability, so that over a period of time that that stability and that reliability is there. That means their people have to be educated to get to know about what the new technologies are, the services, the software, all of that is a part of achieving that.
PH: On the certification exam side that we do, there was a downturn, but one of the nice things to come out of all the lockdown experience from our side, from a business activity standpoint, is that exam sessions are back up in person; but, a lot of training companies have (because of the lockdown) implemented online training modules or real time classes, remote training and such. When it comes to the shortage of workers, now people can take advantage of the training without having to leave the site for four days. And even we (ICML) implemented online exams as well so that somebody doesn't have to leave the site to take the certification exam. And those numbers we were just reviewing, are back up to almost pre-lockdown levels. So that comeback is happening.
PS: That's tremendous. I've noticed that a lot of companies that deliver training have accelerated their movement towards online or blended learning. In some ways in the media world, we had to pivot too make sure that we were delivering this multimedia content to people.
JF: Noria is a training organization, and we train all over the world, and during COVID we actually built a brand new studio, it’s like a TV studio, so that we could fill it full of props and hardware. We had proper lighting, and microphones, and so forth. During that period of time, we did lots and lots of courses, and many of those became on-demand courses that people could download and study or go through at will, self-directed, that sort of thing.
These days definitely the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction, and people have kind of grown tired of trying to go through training by looking at a computer or screen. They want to have that classroom interaction, ability to talk to other students, to talk to the professor. These courses are 24 hours long, three days. It's hard to get all the way through that just looking at a computer; many of them aborted a third of the way through, they never finish these (online) courses.
These days, we have to have both options. Online is an option, we will run as many online public courses as we do. In person, we don't get quite as many as we used to, but we now have really access to the entire planet. We ran a course like 18 months ago, it was an MLA course, a lubrication engineering course. We had 20 different countries represented, time zones all around the world. We had three different instructors running that course and they wanted to participate in, it was a really good course. If we would have tried to do that in person, it would not have been possible, we'd only have had maybe a third that many people.
We're still running those courses, and we've learned how to do those courses at a much higher quality level. In the old days it was like voice over PowerPoint. You were sitting in front of a laptop, you're going through PowerPoint, and you were talking and had a little microphone, and it wasn't very high quality. We do it much different these days.