Smarter Manufacturing for a Shrinking Workforce
The main question facing those handling personnel issues in the HVACR industry is, “How can we recruit more talent to the industry?”
You can’t pick up any trade or general news publication that doesn’t write about the current pinch of people entering the industry and the predicted squeeze around the bend. Fewer technicians are working today, those who are — many of whom have decades of institutional experience — are leaving, and the replacement rate isn’t matching the exodus.
And if that were not sufficient negative news to concern everyone in the trades, including the HVACR industry, there’s another bit of tarnishing news. In some instances, the complexity of modern technology has become more sophisticated and requires a higher level of training and education than ever before.
That leaves everyone in the industry with the dual-edge problem of having too few people and increasingly sophisticated hiring needs.
“It’s a crazy problem that’s not going away soon,” one industry observer said during a recent HARDI function.
While wholesalers and contractors focus on recruitment to hopefully boost up the numbers, some savvy suppliers have approached the problem through the equipment they manufacture. The reason is this: If the equipment that the technician must install, monitor or replace is less complicated, it will require a lower skill level on the part of a contractor or his assistant.
The idea of designing products that are less complicated is a change for some savvy manufacturers who keep this approach in the forefront of their design process.
Mike Reilly, president of Englishtown, New Jersey-based EWC Controls, a manufacturer of forced-air zoning equipment, says there’s been a methodical change going on in his company for two to three years.
“The legacy guys — the long-term guys that have the blood, sweat and tears into this industry and all the knowledge — they’re leaving, and very few are coming in to replace them,” Reilly says. “The trend is to build and engineer your products so that a less experienced person can install it.” In tandem with the installation, the products themselves have become “smarter,” he said.
“It’s a quicker and much easier install,” Reilly said, “There’s less wiring — maybe just a four-wire hook-up, the components talk to each other, they self-configure, and there is less human interaction.” The added plus is there are fewer errors, he says.
Reilly likens it to the old days of installing a printer. You needed a disc(s) to download the drivers, or you could connect to the internet and download. Today, for many printers, you simply connect the printer and the computer recognizes it, downloads the drivers automatically, and you’re done.
When asked if we’ll ever remove the presence of a tech for an install and monitor, he laughed.
“The end goal would be yes, that we can send out a box, and someone is going to stick it in its place and put up an antenna and leave,” he said. “Then, somebody sitting back at the front office in front of her computer is going to dial in through the cloud, set it up and configure it. It’s going to be all configured, and that guy or gal sitting at that computer desk is going to be able to [monitor] it.
“That’s utopia. Will we ever get there in our industry? I don’t think so. I don’t think our product will ever get to a point that we won’t have somebody who has some familiarity install it.”
But Reilly concedes that easier installations and connectivity are a reality in the HVACR industry. Slightly more than a year ago, EWC engineers created a new zoning panel that is easier to configure and requires less expertise on the part of the installer.
“We have a zone panel that will work with a specific piece of equipment, and the contractor installs a simple four-wire from the equipment to the zone panel to the thermostat,” Reilly said. “Then the thermostat, the zone panel, and the equipment will auto-configure themselves and recognize what they are, who they are, and what they’re supposed to be doing.
“It was a collaboration with us and another original equipment manufacturer. They recognized where they need to be [technologically], and they started seeing the trend because they see it a lot more than us. They’re dealing with a lot more boxes and a lot more contractors and dealers than just a simple zoning guy. They partnered with us primarily because we both wanted something that is going to be less intense during the installation process.”
If Mike Reilly has installers on his mind, Paul Graham, senior vice president at Aprilaire, an IAQ solutions manufacturer and a division of Research Products Corp., looks at it a bit more simply. In fact, the motto at the Madison, Wisconsin-based company is “engineered simplicity.”
Like Reilly, Graham sees what is occurring at the contractor and installer levels and recognizes the key for simple if more elegant solutions for their products. But Aprilaire pushes the ease frontier a bit further. When they design a product, they have the consumer in mind, not just the installer, dubbing their approach, “the connected home.”
“We come in from purely a complete quality perspective,” Graham said. “If you think about the house, we don’t do heating, cooling — we distribute the air. We think about the consumer and their needs from an IAQ perspective.”
Graham repeatedly noted that both the installer and the customer must be comfortable with the product. Most installers find it difficult to sell more than one product at a time; therefore, proving the item they are installing works as promised is critical, he said.
He used a thermostat they sell as an example. “We have a two-part thermostat where all the wiring for the humidifier and the dehumidifier and ventilation, all that goes into one place. From there, it goes to the furnace, and that’s easy for the contractor to install, and he gets confirmation, lights come on, things tell him [that] it’s working. It’s important that the customer knows what they’ve got and the control they have on their smartphone or tablet. They know they have more than just trust [in the installer]; they can actually know the house is ventilating, the dehumidifier is on, and the humidity level is X percent.”
Graham says that consumers don’t necessarily want control of the unit, but they do want to be aware that it’s working as promised. This arrangement actually benefits the entire circle of involvement from the manufacturer to the installer and concludes with the consumer. As Graham noted, “If the consumer knows it’s working, there’s less likelihood of a callback.”
Graham said Aprilaire has watched contractors struggle for years searching for high-quality help. He pointed out that by having more integrated, easier-to-use products, it not only helps the installer from a potential skill level, but it is meaningful from a logistics standpoint. Time is critical to the contractor, and if a product is easier to install and is reliable, it reduces the installation process and shortens each home visit.
“As a manufacturer, we have to look at the changing workforce,” Graham said. “They [installers] are tight on time and want to get in and out. The efficiency we’re creating with our products is a huge deal because you need to [help them] get done more quickly or with one fewer person. It’s expensive to have that extra person, and there’s congestion [on the roads].
“During humidifier season, we’ll do 2,500 technical training sessions. We’ll bring their whole staff in. We probably ought to get a discount at Dunkin’ Donuts. We come in at 7 a.m. and we take them through the process. A humidifier’s pretty simple, but again, if you save half an hour apiece [on a call], we can show them four or five tips to get in and out of that job quicker, get that humidifier or water panel serviced, whatever it might be. We go through that same thing with some of our other products.”
Easier-to-install products that are smarter won’t directly affect the workforce issues the industry faces. What it will do for companies like EWC and Aprilaire, is allow a quicker and less technically challenging installation. This would possibly allow for a less-experienced installer to complete the job and can potentially extend the number of daily service calls. The technician shortage is not retreating, but some manufacturers at least are adapting product solutions that are ameliorating the problem.