"The things that are happening in the auto industry are going to be greater than we've seen in many, many years in a short period of time," said Kevin Carson, president of Denso Manufacturing Michigan Inc. (DMMI), the company's main thermal systems operation in Battle Creek, Mich., which produces automotive air conditioning and engine cooling components.
"Things are going to go from what we call more of a driving experience to a mobility experience, so what the customers want and what the industry needs are going to be very different," he said.
In North America, Denso has opened technical training centers to take the education of its 27,000-plus workforce there into its own hands. The company, which has its North American headquarters in Southfield, Mich., has training facilities in Apodaca, Mexico; Maryville, Tenn.; and Athens, Tenn.
Last month, the company opened an 11,600-sq.-ft. technical training center in Battle Creek, about a mile down the road from DMMI's massive campus that covers more than 1.38 million square feet of manufacturing, warehouse and administrative space and employs roughly 3,000.
The Battle Creek training facility—officially called the North Technical Training Center—is a $1.95 million investment by Denso and a slice of its efforts to educate workers in various aspects of automated and data-rich manufacturing, or Industry 4.0.
The company, in a news release, called it "an urgent resource" as the automotive industry and manufacturing technology rapidly evolve.
"There's a sense of relief that the organization acknowledges the fast-paced changes and that we continue to invest to make sure people are prepared to do the job that we need them to do," Carson said.
The center will train employees in areas such as high-speed video cameras, advanced robotics, programming automated manufacturing systems, precision assembly and alignment of mechanical components and systems and machine-specific training for proprietary processes.
"People have to understand how to interact with sensing equipment so we can identify problems predictably before they (happen) and result in any type of downtime," Carson said of the "internet of things" and the machine data collected by sensors. "So, how to interact with that and how to coexist for speed of repair—or, quite honestly, repair prevention—so we can never have any downtime. That's a big one."
When it comes to hardware such as robotics, the hefty task of learning the various programming languages used by each equipment manufacturer is "one of the more complex things" Denso has to deal with, as the company strives to train its workers faster and more thoroughly than in the past, Carson said.
"We have Motoman robots. We have Denso robots. We have different versions, and these versions have their own language," he explained. "I would liken it to an Android vs. an Apple phone. It functions the same way, but how you navigate and how you interact with it is quite different."
Workers need to have the capability to speak those languages, he said.
The future is complex
But that's just one part of the shift in skills. As technology continues to advance forward and the automotive landscape evolves, Carson said the skills that will be in high demand in the future correlate to a shift from hardware knowledge to software knowledge.
He provided the example of how, with IoT technology, Denso's global headquarters in Japan can monitor machine performance across its manufacturing facilities.
"The ability to use that and the ability to understand how that functions is a skill that we're going to have to have the capability to teach and navigate in," Carson said. "That type of complexity is what we're trying to teach right now."
The skilled labor shortage, paired with a skills gap as experienced workers with legacy know-how settle into retirement, is also of growing concern to Denso. But its technical training centers can help the company to attract and retain a talented workforce.
"Our technology is changing faster than it ever has. We just have to promote and share with everybody that this is a place you can still be satisfied and an industry (where) you can still be satisfied and be creative, be innovative, have the freedom to explore—those types of things," Carson said.
"So, how do we promote it and how do we continue to educate people that it exists?" he added. "This is the journey that we're on right now."