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How long can workers compete with AI? The fate of Pittsburgh manufacturers can tell

In the five years he worked as a mechanic, Joe Dean gained a window into a single innovation to manage the growing labor shortage in the nation’s factories.

He started as an apprentice in a traditional department store in upstate New York, where there was a clear chain of command.

“Any questions you have are left to your team captain. The team captain will then speak to [the general manager]. “General Motors will talk to customers,” he said. “We never spoke to anyone outside of the company. It was like, ‘No, you don’t have an email address – you don’t need one.'”

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Ann Lee Hering

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90.5 Wesa

CNC mechanic Joe Dean was hired at Conturo Prototyping after training as an apprentice for two years.

That division of labor disappeared when Dean began working for Conturo Prototyping in North Point Breeze in 2019. Instead, each of the plant’s 10 machinists manage projects from start to finish, meaning they consult directly with customers and suppliers.

“I came here, got a small room and an office. And I said, “Holy cow, the mechanic will never get a room. Dean said about his first day at Kuntoro.

He still spends a lot of time on the factory floor, making parts for aerospace, self-driving vehicles, and other high-tech companies. He programmes computer numerical control machines that use a robotic arm to cut metal blocks into precise shapes.

“go ahead [with the machine]and then you can respond to a couple of emails, start talking about the next job, and order inventory while the machine does all the work,” he said.

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Ann Lee Hering

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90.5 Wesa

The owner and president of Conturo Prototyping, John Contoro, holds a steel block and the part that will be used to make it.

Company owner and president John Contoro designed his store with this result in mind. He said it improves the productivity of every employee.

“A lot of our competitors, to create one of these jobs [to make parts]It’s going to take two weeks because they have to pass it through all these people, while here we can do it in a matter of days just because one person is working on it.”

Matt Verlinich advises startups and factories throughout southwestern Pennsylvania as a Manufacturing Program Associate at Innovation Works, based on the North Side. He said the agility of Conturo’s business model stands out. But he notes that he still depends on labor at a time when plants they struggle with employment as such childbearing child Keep getting old and retire.

He said, “You still have to find someone, train them, keep them, and keep them for each particular task that you try to scale. And since if you can train an algorithm to do that, it’s infinitely scalable provided you can keep saving more. of machines.”

different approach

AI has a long way to go – perhaps decades – before it can completely replace mechanics. But a start-up in Lawrenceville is trying. Formlogic was founded by Paul Sutter about three years ago.

shortage in this industry [driven by a lack of] Skilled mechanics said…a short drive away. “While for us, we have skilled mechanics [who] It can mostly work remotely and program it and [plan] To learn how to operate the parts. Then they send it to us, and our software helps us [make] These parts are on site without supervision. “

While some of these steps are taking place as far afield as Australia and Europe, Formlogic still needs people in its plant along the Allegheny River.

Inside, the space is brightly lit and tidy. A few dozen machines, like the one at Conturo Prototyping, line up in neat rows.

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As part of its $35 million in funding, Formlogic has received direct vendor funding from machine makers in Japan and Germany.

Kelsey Brown is one of about 20 process professionals who personally handle equipment. Prior to taking this job in May, I worked primarily in the service industry.

“I tried security. I tried cleaning. I just tried different things. And like, I think I’m ready to move on to something more practical because that’s what I like to do,” she recalled.

Although she completed a mechanic training program, she did not work as a machine mechanic at Formlogic. Instead, several machines monitor from the ground if problems arise. She said it’s easy to notice when things go wrong.

“It’s going to sound funny,” she said during a shift earlier this month. “Nothing used to sound funny at all today, so that’s okay — that’s really good. But if it’s starting to look funny or loud, you’ll want to come over and check it out.”

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Each machine at Formlogic contains a set of 50 to 80 tools for cutting metal blocks into complex parts.

Then based on what she found, Braun contacts the off-site machine, which can program any necessary adjustments. This process usually takes less than an hour. But Matt Verlinich of Innovation Works said delays don’t exist in factories where mechanics are physically present, figuring out problems for themselves and tweaking their blades on the spot.

“They also have to understand the limitations of the many different types of pieces of equipment and the kind of geometries they can produce, as well as the kinds of precisions they can produce. Each individual part is very different in how it is made,” he said.

Formlogic’s AI system still needs to learn and hone all this knowledge. Therefore, it must constantly collect data to improve its software.

changing dynamics

Video about Formlogic’s website Clarifies the company’s vision: a worker-free factory. An animated scene shows a production floor full of machine drilling parts without human operators. Robots move between the machines, ready to load and unload materials.

The idea has received significant financial support. Formogic Reports On her website she raised $35 million. Venture capital firms in New York City and San Francisco are the main investors, and machine makers in Japan and Germany have provided financing to the sellers.

Sutter, a native of the Pittsburgh area, launched Formlogic in San Francisco, where he previously led an online advertising company.

“I kept… asking myself, ‘Why do I work in advertising with these wonderful people?’” “So, I wanted to work on something more significant, using similar techniques, but applying it to something more realistic,” he said of his decision to create Formlogic.

He decided to move the company to Pittsburgh, given the city’s affordability and focus on manufacturing and robotics expertise.

Sutter said Formlogic started with three machines at a facility in Robinson Township. But today it houses 23 machines in its 50,000-square-foot plant in Lawrenceville. Sutter said it will grow to 300 machines after its next round of financing.

The company primarily serves the aerospace industry, but Sutter expects it will eventually add medical and semiconductor parts to its product line.

In total, the startup employs about 55 people. Sutter said the 20 workers on the production floor earn between $20 and $30 an hour.

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Ann Lee Hering

/

90.5 Wesa

For an international retailer project, Conturo Prototyping manufactures covers for motors that are used in warehouse robotic arms.

Meanwhile, Conturo Prototyping in North Point Breeze for its machines pays between $18 and $36 an hour, according to owner John Contoro. Like Formlogic, the six-year-old company employs people with a diverse history of education and employment. Some mechanics arrive with high school diplomas, while others have bachelor’s degrees in engineering.

“We find very unconventional people, and we mechanicalize them with on-the-job training,” Kuntoro said. “So we have good processes internally for how we train people, especially new people who don’t have the same amount of experience, and raise them to the level we need them to produce the parts we make.”

By contrast, the company has reduced its need for office staff by developing its own software for preparing quotes, sending invoices and managing workflows. It continues to incorporate new robotic tools into its manufacturing process.

However, the company hopes to rely more on workforce development with the transition to The Great Pittsburgh Coliseum, which was once a tram hangar in Homewood. It has applied to the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh to set up a vocational school on the site, along with a machine shop that Contoro said would double the store’s staff.

Today, the company employs 32 people. Kuntoro said its sales cover the cost of growth and operations, while the debt finances capital expenditures.

So, even if the future of manufacturing lies in artificial intelligence, Conturo Prototyping remains competitive with its focus on cross-worker training.

But it is unclear how long this strategy will win.

“If you ask ten different experts, you get ten different views of what that timeline is,” said Verlinich of Innovation Works. But, “In the grand scheme of things for the very long run, yes, [machining] It is a process that can be automated.”

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