Tech-friendly industries

How to get a job in manufacturing IT

To make it in manufacturing, IT pros need to understand a wide range of technology, from robotics to good old-fashioned electronics.

Is manufacturing IT conservatively behind the tech curve or out on the forward edge of innovation? That depends upon whom you ask.

Talk to Jennifer Hartsock, group CIO for construction industries at venerable equipment manufacturer Caterpillar, and she'll tell you about combining mobile technology with truly giant machinery.

One mining vehicle stands so high that workers require a multi-flight staircase to get to its upper reaches. Caterpillar employees need access to its manufacturing execution system (MES) software while they are building the vehicle, so Hartsock's team worked with its business counterparts to put desktop virtualization software on iPads to run the MES from the ground, then slipped the tablets into a heavy-duty case with a magnetic back. "The case attaches magnetically to the side of the vehicle, so they have their instructions right in front of them," says Hartsock.

On the other side of the technology divide there's George Lasseigne IV, director of technology for Warren Manufacturing, a Birmingham, Ala.-based maker of bulk-feed trailers and agricultural spreaders.

Lasseigne recently spent $250,000 on a brand-new machine -- a computer-controlled plasma cutter -- for his company's assembly line. The unit, which arrived in late March, uses Windows XP as its embedded operating system.

That's right -- the machine is being installed about the same time its operating system is reaching its end of life.

"I know that's ironic," says Lasseigne, "but it's not as though the operating system doesn't work anymore." Although his company's back-end office systems are modern, heavy machinery frequently sports "the opposite of leading edge technology," Lasseigne says. "You won't be playing with the newest, coolest toys," he observes, explaining that manufacturing is an industry that prizes reliability, which sometimes means shying away from the cutting edge.

So which is the proper characterization of manufacturing? Staid and reliable, or innovative and forward-thinking? The answer is both.

Manufacturing is alive and well in the United States. In recruiting company Robert Half Technology's 2014 regional breakdown of IT job demand, manufacturing ranked No. 1 in three of nine regions and No. 2 or No. 3 in the other six regions. But with one foot in the past and one foot in the future, the industry needs IT to provide a technological bridge between the two.

An industry growing and expanding

Without a doubt, the manufacturing industry is at an inflection point, confirms Rhoda Rahaii, a principal in the IT group at HR consultancy Mercer. "There's a wide spectrum in the industry" -- from a technologically conservative approach to one that's transformative and reinventive, she says.

"Some of the older and more conservative factories are being replaced with more streamlined factories. These organizations are dealing with more sophisticated customers, so they've becoming more sophisticated themselves," says Rahaii. "The organizations that understand this shift also understand how IT can help connect with customers and help the business be more agile."

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