Vision Growth Leads to Talent Shortages, but Where’s the Recognition?
| By: Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor
Visit machine vision companies around the world and talk to the managers and it’s the most common topic of conversation: Business is booming, if only we had enough people to field it all.
The good news is the world is hungry for what the machine vision, robotics, and motion control industries offer. But for at least one of those subgroups—namely, machine vision—market growth hasn’t directly translated to growing awareness and recognition among the general population or among a more important group: students entering universities and vocational schools.
At the core of the issue is a general lack of awareness about modern manufacturing – a trend that doubles down when it comes to a specialized niche industry like machine vision. For example, in a 2016 survey of parents and their views on careers in manufacturing, half of the respondents didn’t see manufacturing as an exciting, challenging, or engaging profession. More than 20 percent of parents surveyed viewed manufacturing as an “outdated and/or dirty work environment.”
“I still have to explain to friends and family that when I say I work in optics, I don’t make eyeglasses,” says Greg Hollows, Vice President of Imaging at Edmund Optics, with a wry note.
“The robotics industry has done really well to attract schools and get them to commit to programs to introduce students to automation at that level,” says James Gardiner, Business Development Manager for Metaphase Technologies Inc. “With robotics, the students can physically touch the solution and see it working. For machine vision, unfortunately, we’re more of a ‘black box.’”
Tips for Snagging Talent
High-technology automation companies recognize the importance of appealing to early-career engineers and technicians without sacrificing the quality and reliability their customers have come to depend on. That means creating awareness of—and interest in—the industry through a variety of means, including:
Supporting K-12 STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs. For example, partner with a local middle school to demonstrate cool applications enabled by motion control. Whenever possible, give students opportunities for hands-on learning—the ability to perform an automation task will have more impact than a simple factory tour.
Promoting, sponsoring, or participating in student competitions. Using input from industry representatives, the recent Agile Robotics for Industrial Automation Competition, from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), presented teams with various agility challenges while autonomously completing pick-and-place kit assembly tasks. Find, or even create, similar competitions through local high schools and technical and engineering colleges.
Making friends with college instructors and professors. While it is ideal to get students interested in industrial automation in their formative years, find every opportunity you can to teach about automation technologies that typically don’t make the college curriculum, such as machine vision or industrial pneumatics.
Universities, Industry Step Up Together
The good news is that academia is starting to pay attention. As evidenced by AIA’s Vision Research & Academia page and ongoing outreach efforts spearheaded by AIA’s Director of Education Strategies, Robert Huschka, students have more options than ever before when it comes to pursuing an engineering school or advanced degree in computational imaging. And based on online discussions between students and recent graduates, computational imaging is gaining attention both in North America and around the world. But according to insiders, we still have a ways to go.
“While imaging has growth and universities are seeing a need, it’s still being driven primarily by the B2C part of the market,” explains Edmund’s Hollows. “Image analysis, computational imaging, and image manipulation are being driven by Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and the automotive companies that need it. The interest is mainly in the algorithm … If you take a class or courses in computational imaging, it has very little to do with the science of the propagation of light. You’re taught bits and pieces, but not a thorough expertise. If you go into optical engineering and photonics, you tend to focus on lasers and optics, rather than imaging optics.”
Despite outsize growth from the machine vision industry—19 percent in early 2018, for example—it’s overall market size that sways the educational body politic. The global laser industry accounts for approximately $10 billion or more in sales per year, due mainly to fiber communications. That’s compared with less than $1 billion for machine vision sales in North America, which represents roughly a quarter of global sales.
Savvy machine vision companies are doing whatever they can to partner with and develop relationships with nearby colleges, universities, and vocational schools. Edmund Optics, for example, works closely with the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Gardiner’s Metaphase periodically sends engineers out to nearby universities and vocational schools to talk about automation and introduce students to machine vision in particular. “We see it as a market pitch,” explains Gardiner. “They want to go to school for engineering, and we suggest that, while a hundred-million- or billion-dollar company might have more positions available, our company has more room to grow; they may have more jobs, but we have more room to make a difference.”
Retention: Keep What You Catch
Back to the proverbial water cooler: If you walk management back into their offices and ask what the next greatest challenge to workforce management is, the answer is often retention, and how to accomplish it in a demand-side marketplace where there are many more openings than applicants.
“For us, it comes down to culture,” says Edmund’s Hollows. “We try to find both the right person and the right person for our culture, and you need to understand that any organization will have a mix of people. We try to offer the individual a whole package that includes long-term development plans. Some will be résumé builders and won’t stick around very long. Others will stay and be a backbone player. Those folks want long-term stability, and you need to make sure they understand they have it with you. And when others move on, don’t be offended.”
There is no quick answer to the automation industries’ need for qualified, motivated talent. As the growing awareness of imaging at the university level demonstrates, the marketplace is responding, and we can expect that trend to accelerate as machine vision solutions become a more common part of consumer experiences. But smart companies can take action to use talent acquisition and retention as a competitive edge.
“You look at the A3 Business Forum every year in Orlando, and you see a lot of gray hair and too few young guys coming up,” notes Metaphase’s Gardiner. It’s going to be a huge challenge in this industry: Who will be the leaders, and who is going to steer our biggest companies? Who’s going to manage these staffs to come up with the next breakthrough in machine vision, to keep our industry relevant and growing? And think it’s not just a challenge for North America but for Europe and Asia as well. The Asian market is definitely seeing a huge amount of growth, and we need to stay on the forefront if we want North American machine vision to be a leader and steer the market into the future.”