The U.S. skills gap, supply chain barriers, and labor shortages are real-world manufacturing challenges in 2021 and beyond. Couple that with high staff turnover, skills and experience gaps among employees, and a lack of new talent interested in careers in manufacturing, and we can see just how challenged companies are today. 

With a focus on reshoring, made in America consumer demands, and same-day delivery expectations, U.S. companies are struggling to meet customer demands.

Automation has helped alleviate some of these pressures, but autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and similar advanced technology still require people with knowledge of advanced robotics to program, operate, and manage the equipment. And skills gap and reskilling are not buzz words we hear often.

Get to know eKAMI

This is why we want you to get to know the East Kentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute (eKAMI). Located in Paintsville, Kentucky, eKAMI is bringing 21st century advanced manufacturing expertise, education, and skills training to Appalachia.

Motivated by the singular mission of “diversifying the region’s economy and identifying sustainable solutions by leveraging our uniquely talented and hard-working Appalachian workforce of today in preparation for the jobs of tomorrow,” eKAMI is having a deep impact on people, companies, and the economy.

Kathy Walker, a 30-year veteran of the coal industry partnered with the Gene Hass Foundation to open the 40,000 square foot workforce development facility in Paintsville to train people for new careers in advanced manufacturing, robotics, and automation. 

Walker saw a deep need to diversify the region’s economy and recognized that the citizens of Appalachia have the unique skills and experience to fill hiring gaps. Skills and experience ideally suited to 21st century manufacturing, that can help put a dent in the holes created by the pandemic, skills gap, labor shortage, and supply chain challenges – and ultimately help companies act on their reshoring plans. 

At eKAMI, students learn to program, set-up and operate state-of-the-art Haas CNC equipment, AutoGuide,Mobile Industrial Robots (MIR), Universal Robots (UR), and READY Robotics automation designed for use in a range of industries from aerospace to automotive.

eKAMI instructor, Mike Cepeda sums up how AMRs make a difference for both employees and companies, “I operated forklifts when I was in my early 20’s. This work is hard on the body and comes with its own set of risks and challenges. But if you’ve got a tugger or pallet mover that can eliminate part or all of the manual work, it’s a win-win for everyone. 

These robots are easier on the body, more efficient, and allow companies to utilize skilled labor in less-risk, higher-reward areas.”

21st Century U.S. Manufacturing Challenges

This snapshot of data from research into U.S manufacturing challenges underscores why this is the ideal time to think differently about educating, training, and reskilling the U.S. workforce:

This conclusion from McKinsey in its Skillful Corporation article speak directly to how to get ahead of these pervasive U.S manufacturing challenges:

The physical and psychological distance created by the pandemic requires new tools and approaches that better engage and motivate learners to change their behaviors, emphasizing technological fluency and problem solving in tandem with virtual learning content.

The eKAMI Robotics Center is putting this into action, responding to the needs of companies by training men and women in robotics programming and engineering.

“Companies are realizing that successful deployment of automation requires forward-thinking, boots-on-the-ground technicians who have been trained on the latest technology and possess skills suited for today’s manufacturing environment.

Our students are learning by doing. Hands-on learning with the latest in robotics and automation technology has put our graduates in high demand. Manufacturers win by having motivated employees with the latest in robotics and automation skills needed to fill gaps and bring efficiencies to the factory floor,” says Walker.

eKAMI and Solving Real-World U.S. Manufacturing Challenges

In our first article about eKAMI, we highlighted the catch-22 of U.S. manufacturing – not having enough people to fill jobs nor the people to program and operate the robots and automation that can help fill the labor shortage

However, the new eKAMI Robotics Center is changing this and is an example of what happens when people are given the opportunity to learn in-demand skills and knowledge. 

“We talk about reshoring manufacturing jobs and filling gaps in the supply chain, but we need people to do this. By giving our students the latest in robotics and CNC machining skills and education, manufacturers have direct access to people who have the skills, desire, and imagination to work in this industry.

Now, we’ve got manufacturers visiting from all over the country to hire our graduates. Hands-on training on the latest technology, combined with people who have a deep skillset from their years working in coal mining and living in Appalachia mean every single eKAMI graduate gets a job,” stresses Walker. 

The eKAMI Robotics Center opened in June 2021 and is supported by a range of companies including: 

These companies are seeing first-hand the advantages of investing in people with access to education, technology, and hands-on skills learning. For us at AutoGuide, the skills taught at eKAMI mean we can hire experienced and confident people to do the exact jobs we’ve been struggling to fill. 

Thanks to private and public funding, students like Kevin Yonts, get the opportunity to use their diverse skills and knowledge – helping themselves, their communities, and U.S employers to regain a foothold and move forward. 

Yonts, worked in the mines for 30 years and after graduating from eKAMI recently started work at Roush Yates Manufacturing in Mooresville, NC. “eKAMI change my life. I wasn’t sure what to do when we lost stability in the coal mines. 

My body couldn’t sustain it and frankly it was exhausting, physically and emotionally when the jobs would disappear so quickly.

And then came eKAMI. Frankly, eKAMI has changed the future for my entire family. My son recently graduated from eKAMI, and my twin son and daughter are currently studying at eKAMI. I’ve always had a love for machines and technology – and now I’ve got a bright future ahead of me working with the latest in manufacturing technology,” says Yonts.

Finding Solutions to U.S Manufacturing Challenges

eKAMI is a prime example of how putting words into action can help manufacturers overcome systemic challenges and those highlighted by the pandemic. 

And as a recent article in Robotics 24/7 highlights, this is the ideal time for companies to look to robotics, automation, and new training opportunities to bring impactful change to manufacturing.

  1. Ecommerce and same-day delivery: online sales accounted for 101% of all gains in U.S. retail in 2020 and consumers spent $861.1 billion online with U.S. merchants. This boom in sales triggered a scramble to find and hire workers at all touchpoints – manufacturing products, delivering these to retailers and partners, and ultimately fulfilling B2B and B2C orders. 
  • Push to reshore manufacturing: shuttered borders, overwhelmed ports, and a lack of people to support the global supply chain means companies are rethinking how and where parts, goods, and products are sourced and manufactured. And as a recent New York Times article stresses, “Pandemic-related shortages – from computer chips to construction materials – were supposed to be resolved by now. Instead, the world has gained a lesson in the ripple effects of disruption.”
  • Lack of workers and a deep skills gap: as highlighted above, and as this Robotics 24/7 article emphasizes – 71% of U.S. manufacturers say they will have ongoing difficulties in attracting and retaining workers in 2021 and beyond, and 36% of U.S. manufacturers believe finding the right talent is harder than it was in 2018, despite a much-higher unemployment rate.
  • Automation and robot technology is here: AMRs and robot technology are the logical choice for manufacturers who are faced with the triple-whammy of same-day delivery demands, health and safety liabilities, and labor shortages. As an extra bonus, AMRs give companies and people the freedom to focus on more value-added high-skilled tasks ultimately increasing throughput efficiency and long-term job satisfaction.
  • Reskilling and upskilling to meet the demands of 21st century advanced manufacturing: each of the reports highlighted above stressed the need to invest in people with training, reskilling, and upskilling. 

And as Kathy Walker, the founder and CEO of eKAMI emphasizes, “Anyone with the motivation and drive to understand something different can open the doors to a new beginning. For the naturally talented workforce of eastern Kentucky, this simply means acquiring new skills to compliment and update existing ones. 

Employers in the advanced manufacturing industry throughout the U.S. are experiencing this first-hand when they meet, hire, and work with eKAMI graduates.”

Manufacturing, eKAMI, and Continuous Growth

Change must start somewhere and for the people of Appalachia and the companies involved in eKAMI, it all starts in Paintsville, KY. Walker and her team have a broader vision for what eKAMI can do for the industry as a catalyst for change and continuous growth.

“We have developed a model, completely driven by industry and constantly adapting as technology advances, that is providing solutions to industry’s labor challenges. While technology continues to advance, eKAMI’s focus is on deployment of that innovation onto the manufacturing floor.  

This requires an upskilled, agile, workforce equipped with the necessary tools to integrate automation systems effectively and efficiently on the manufacturing floor. eKAMI is training the workforce which has become the bridge from innovation to industry.

It is eKAMI’s goal to keep pace with emerging technology. Through strategic partnerships with industry leaders like Teradyne, we anticipate continuing to lead the way in ushering in a new era of manufacturing.”

This is the second of a two-part series on eKAMI, the skills gap, reshoring, and automation. Our August blog introduces eKAMI and provides the where, who, what, why, and how of eKAMI. Read Meet eKAMI: The School that is Changing Lives in Kentucky.