Enabling Automation Podcast: S2 E4

We’re excited to bring you our first-ever podcast series, Enabling Automation. This monthly podcast series will bring together industry leaders from across ATS Automation to discuss the latest industry trends, new innovations and more!

In our fourth episode of season 2, host Simon Drexler is joined by D’Arcy Oldfield to discuss Influencing the next generation.

What we discuss:

  • What can we do to build up the next generation?
  • Building the future builds current and future teams
  • Influence of STEM professionals

Host: Simon Drexler, ATS Corporation (ATS Products Group)

Simon has been in the automation industry for approximately 15 years in a variety of roles, ranging from application engineering to business leadership, as well as serving several different industries and phases of the automation lifecycle.

Guest: D’Arcy Oldfield, ATS Corporation (ATS Products Group)

D’Arcy Oldfield is a Product Support Specialist (Controls) at ATS Corporation. He has worked in the automation industry for 30 years, with the last 15 at ATS, 3 with the SuperTrak team. Over the years he’s worked across many segements from automotive, aerospace, food and beverage to steel and with many different controls.

——Full Transcript of Enabling Automation: S2, E4——

SD: Welcome to episode four of the Enabling Automation Podcast, where we’re talking about influencing the next generation, all as part of our general goal of the podcast of bringing experts from across the ATS group of machine builders to provide insight to those looking to implement automation within their organizations. I’m your host, Simon Drexler. I’ve been a part of the automation industry for over 15 years now in a variety of roles in both large and small companies. Currently, I lead the products group inside of ATS, which looks at standardization and innovation of technology to help enable and drive the automation products forward.

SD: We’re joined today by D’Arcy Oldfield, who is going to talk to us about some of his experience, which is quite extensive in helping to develop the next generation. D’Arcy, can you give an introduction to the listener base?

DO: Hi, I’m D’Arcy Oldfield. I’ve worked in the automation industry for like 30 years. 15 of that is about with ATS, 3 with the SuperTrak group, which is internal to ATS. Over the years I’ve done everything from automotive, aerospace, food and beverage, steel, all sorts of different controls. So I work with just numerous PLCs and numerous control systems. The nervous system of the automation world.

SD: D’Arcy Inside of this podcast, we talk a lot about the necessity of the ecosystem. How automation by design or by definition is a number of different components and technologies and processes and people coming together to create something unique. And that’s why it’s so heavily reliant on an ecosystem and a number of different experts. So with it being so reliant on that large ecosystem, what can we do and what can you share about your background to ensure that we’re helping to, to grow that ecosystem and we’re working to build that next generation?

DO: So a lot of the stuff that we learn while we’re working on control systems, is that every control system that somebody creates is done by a person and everyone seems to put their own flavor into like the PLC controls. So a lot of that is identifying how other people think or how other people work for bringing people into like a new environment where they’re programing and stuff like that. If they’re brought in young, it’s more of a wow factor for a kid or for a young person because it’s a whole new world. And honestly, they don’t experience what they experience on an automation floor that they would in school. They just kind of touch on it in school. So it’s hard to tell if people love what they do just by going to school and stuff like that. When I was at ATS here, I decided that we should have some sort of connection to the kids and connection to like showing them what we do or making technology a little bit more hands on. So I developed the kids tech club and what it was is it was open to employees and their kids. And the important part of this kid’s tech club was that it wasn’t like a babysitting organization.

Do: Basically, the parents would come with their kids and they it wasn’t like they would just dump them off somewhere, let the kids do whatever they want and then come pick them up after. So the parents were involved as much as the kids were involved in the kids tech club. So what we would do is I would generally do one a month and I would pick topics and we would just pick just random topics at the time. Sometimes I had people come in like guests, we went to some of the universities and stuff like that where Midnight Sun came in, which is the solar car project from Waterloo. We had a submarine. They have a submarine group at the university as well. They came in. I had individual that made like a full sized R2-D2 replica. So he came in and he showed the kids how all the stuff that he made to make their R2-D2. And then we’ve done projects as well, like little we made catapults, we made some drawing robots, all sorts of different like activities.

SD: What a great way to engage with the community, engage with the next generation and even in the overview that you just gave. Also engaging with universities, university technologies, though that next generation of the workforce to be able to show them what automation really is. Because at school you’ve touched on it as well, you might get a piece, you might get to work with a collaborative robot or a robot or work with a component. But it’s very rare to see the entire ecosystem come together anywhere but within industry.

DO: So another thing, way before the kids tech club, I was working at another automation company. And another thing that really made automation special to me is that when I work on a project, you get a sense of ownership for that project. It’s like your baby. It’s like you’re making something that that goes out into the world and does what you want it to do. So this other automation company I was working at, the way it worked is we would do our project, get our project all ready and set to go to the customer, but we could bring your family in and actually show our family the machine afterwards. So we’ve done similar stuff here where we’ve had open houses and you see a whole bunch. But when we could show our family what we were building on, it kind of it puts a concrete meaning to your family, what you’re working on. They get to see what you’re working on and they don’t just hear about it when you come home and stuff like that. So it’s nice to see their reaction when they see what you actually do. And when younger people or new people into the industry, they come in, the reaction that you get from a younger person is more, how could I say it’s more. Genuine? Genuine. Yeah, that’s what I was going for. It’s more genuine.

DO: If you get a response from somebody of like your peers and stuff like that, a lot of them have seen the automation and they’ve seen that stuff. So you don’t you get a reaction. But it’s not that wow factor reaction that you get when you show it to somebody new.

SD: Well, it’s a great illustration of we get used to what we see in the automation world, in the manufacturing environment and you see it as you travel around to different customers, different companies. The level of technology that’s operating in a world class manufacturer is really second to none. But when you see it every day, it becomes the norm. And then when you bring in the next generation and you see that wow factor in that genuine response of all of these pieces coming together to create something new, it is a nice reminder of what it is that we do as a whole.

DO: It’s also it’s a reminder, but it’s also it’s kind of like a check on what you’re doing. So if you bring in somebody new, they look at the system, they see things in the system that you might not see. They’ll point out things that you might not see or they might suggest things that perhaps have been done or perhaps you did in the project. But in saying that or in asking those questions about automation, they bring it to your attention again and you revisit, okay, I did it this way. Why did I do it this way? And then you explain why you did it a certain way. It’s always nice to know the why behind what you did, because sometimes you look at a machine and you go, What were they thinking? There’s always a reason behind every little piece of the puzzle.

SD: Well, yeah, and being able to articulate that to someone who’s from outside the industry and being able to translate your view as an expert in automation to something that’s understood by whomever it is that’s coming in off the street, essentially without the background. That must be very helpful to you as well in being able to internalize and understand why and be able to more effectively communicate it.

DO: I find that doing that tech club was like, I initialized doing this tech club and from that I experienced a lot more interaction with people learning to be more assertive or understanding of other people’s opinions or other people’s ideas. So having something like that, like we’re dealing with machines all the time as controls guys, and most of the time when you’re talking to a controls guy, he’s not very good with people. So I find that I needed to build my skillset with dealing with people. Having the kids tech club builds on that for me, as well as bringing the kids up.

SD: I’m happy that you went there because talking about developing the next generation, there are listeners who you would start down the assumption path of, Well, that’s for the future. That’s, that’s not providing me value today, but building that next generation provides you value in your existing team to be able to talk about something new, understand and translate. So communication skills and development opportunities, but also provides a pipeline to the future. Is that correct?

DO: Yeah, It’s sometimes in controls you’ll run into different mindsets. So some mindsets are protective on their ideas and their what they build. And basically protective and controlling having a attitude of that I’m not scared of losing my power or losing my position to other people that might know the same or that I can teach the same. Once you come over, like, get over that hurdle of worrying about yourself, then it’s easier to talk and deal with other people and knowing that you get more of a use out of people. Like, if I show you how to do it, then I don’t have to do it.

SD: Teach a person to fish.  And there’s another interesting spin on that as well. I’ve been a part of a number of scale ups now, you know, significant high growth companies. And another way to frame that is as the business grows, there’s a number of people required to do the growing amount of work. And invariably someone needs to give up some of their responsibilities because they have grown outside of the span of one person. And there’s a relatively famous article that frames it as Lego blocks. And you know, people don’t like to give up their Lego blocks. Nobody likes to give up Legos. Everybody likes Legos. Why would I want to give them away? But it’s about the culture of understanding that if you give up your current set of Legos, that there are new, shiny Legos to be able to replace that. There’s never a shortage of things to do in an organization that’s growing, in an organization that’s investing in change.

DO: And if you want to take that to like another aspect of it, if I don’t teach somebody else what I do, then I’m actually limiting myself because nobody can move into doing jobs that I do. I’m stuck in in the position that I do.

SD: Back to your point about being able to translate, you know, why something was done or take that complicated approach or a complicated piece of technology and be able to effectively communicate it and teach.  And that translation, I think is such an important part of the industry, is a lot of people who have been in automation, you have to learn, you have to be able to teach the next generation.

DO: Yeah, in a lot of the stuff that I deal with in today’s age is that I might have to talk somebody through on fixing a machine and I may have not met that person till like today. And I have to figure out what actually went wrong with the machine, how to communicate with the person that’s on the other end of the line. And now you have to understand that they’re in a predicament. They’re dealing with somebody else’s machine. It’s not their ownership per say. And you have to kind of take ownership to kind of relieve the worries. It’s somebody else’s flavor.

SD: Back to the beginning. So our approach, we started talking about a best practice in engaging with kids, but engaging with kids invariably spins into engaging with universities, and then it helps both members of the workforce, young and old or experienced or otherwise. But the other thing that you said was you talked about fresh eyes and that different viewpoint. And I know we have a similar view on co-op students and allowing or enabling co-op students to come into the business and make an impact. Do you want to tell the listeners a little bit about how you approach a student coming into the team?

DO: So we do a lot of work with the University of Waterloo and some of the other universities like University of Guelph, and we’ll get co-ops on a regular basis. So a lot of the time when I’m looking at co-ops to pick, I tend to look at like a look at the resume. But if you look at the résumé, the resume almost is a tailor made. They’ve had like calculus courses, they have some programing courses, so the skillset is pretty much the same. So now to pick out somebody that might be unique or might fit, you have to look at the stuff that they do outside of school as well as you have to get to know their character. So usually what I do is I’ll pick out people based on extra information. So if they write a nice cover letter that shows me that they’re interested in the positions, if they write that they’re part of certain groups, then I can ask about those groups and it gets me a little bit more idea of who they are as opposed to what the resume is. And the very first question that I usually ask when we do an interview is what makes you happy. So the idea is to get an idea of how that person works or how that person like what makes that person happy. I find that if you find somebody is happy at doing a job, they’ll do that job ten times better than somebody who’s unhappy doing that job. So you’ve got to find the person that loves automation or loves the work.

SD: And how does that set them up to have a good term? So for context a primary part of our listener base might be trying to do automation for the first time. They might be looking at bringing in co-op students or resources from the university to help them ramp something up, or maybe somebody who’s later on in the automation journey are doing the same, looking at co-ops and some fresh eyes and fresh resources to come in and help drive change, finding out what they’re passionate about, how does that help drive a good term?

DO: So what I do is generally when I find out after what kind of they gravitate to or what they like, then I try to match them up with a project that suits, something that’s going to spark their interest and keep them involved and give them an ownership of something. Just giving them grunt work. It gives them work experience, but it doesn’t give them a true desire or a true kind of, I can excel at this.

SD:  Right and to the point of this podcast, that doesn’t really help grow the next generation of automation professionals. I am a product of the co-op system and I’ve had good co-op terms and bad co-op terms. But I think you touched on the most important thing for the company to get the most value out of a co-op student, which is the same thing as the co-op student getting the most value out of a term, they need something they can own, a project they can own, ideally in an area that they’re passionate about and they’re going to do the best job. So any of this is really an investment in the future. It’s investing in the next generation of both the workforce but also of the business itself.

SD: How have you seen the influence on STEM professionals change over the course of your career? Because you’ve been in the industry for quite some time and you’ve been so involved in university programs, high school programs, kids clubs. How have you seen STEM change over the course of the years?

DO: So when I started, it wasn’t a big thing in school. Like you would see it in college, you would see these technology groups and everything in the college and university level, but you didn’t see it in the grade school level. So now we have it. It’s basically saturated throughout all the high schools where there’s like the first robotics club, there’s all sorts of different technology clubs that they can get into, they can experience. You’re starting to see it more also in the lower like pre high school now where they’re starting to get into like these first robotics or first Lego clubs. So it’s interesting how it’s kind of saturated down from college level to the grade school. Also, the way universities worked before, most of the universities didn’t do co-ops. All the schools are starting to recognize the deficiencies. So universities started come up with co-op programs.

SD: Have you seen a change in other organizations? And public private collaborations change over time as well? And I know Kids Ability is a good example, but maybe not the only one. Have you seen changes in organizations like that as well to support the growth in STEM, to support the growth in the automation ecosystem?

DO: Like you brought Kids Ability, like I did a project with one of their groups for doing iPads, so they had an iPad and they had items on the iPad that would help the kids speak. So they would hit items on their iPads like apples and houses and cars, and it would speak for them, basically. So the problem they had is that the kids would slip on the iPad. So we made a template that would fit over top of the iPad. And the template basically would have holes in it in specific spots where the kids could touch. So they couldn’t just slide across the touch face. So the problem that the one therapist had was that she was making each one of these templates by hand. So she would write in like she would figure out how to cut the holes and everything, and then she’d send it off to somebody and they cut it. But she would have to calculate all the holes and everything else. So made her like a little batch file that would you just tell it how many holes where you want the holes and it would create this model for her which she could get cut out. So used to take her good couple of days to actually make one of these templates and now she can just type it in and then have it cut. So that was a that was a cool thing that they did with Kids Ability. And it’s just kind of taking technology from us or a company, something that we do every day and then giving it to somebody else that might not know it exists.

SD:  And it’s about using the skill set that’s developed inside of the automation world to help those around build the next generation, build the ecosystem, because you never really know where it’s going to go. And by investing in yourself and being able to go out and do those types of things, it makes you a better professional and, you know, gives you the opportunity to further develop your skill set and career, which kind of comes back into the business that’s looking to drive change in automation and drive change in some way.

DO: And it also it exposes myself to other environments. So exposing yourself to other environments also opens the door to different solutions or different ways of thinking. So that can be pulled back into stuff that we do here. Like if I have a problem with something now, I have a resource at Kids Ability, I might be able to talk to them and say, Hey, I have this interface that I have to figure out how can I do it or how would it how would it work?

SD: If we come back to the goal of the podcast and working to help those who are trying to drive automation change inside of their business, where would you recommend that they look to grow their own expertise? We’ve talked about growing another generation and why that’s important and how that can become a cyclical value or sort of circular value is maybe a good way to frame that. Where should they go? What should they do?

DO: So just to understand more, when I picked places to work, I would go into a company and I looked for certain things. So one of the things that I looked for was is there people there with more experience than me that I can learn off of? Can I grow? So for the most part for me is growth. And the other thing to look at is when you go into a company, how long have everybody been here? If you have a company with like a high turnover rate, you know you’re in for a rough ride and they might offer promotions quick and stuff like that, but it’s because the turnover rate is so quick. You’re not going to be there long enough to get what you want. So recognizing stable companies, recognizing equipment that they’re working with, housekeeping, that sort of stuff, I look for safety when I look into a company. I’m looking for is safety, like you can recognize what’s important to a company. So if their machines are well guarded and everything’s pretty much designed to the T for safety, then you know that safety is important to them. If you see evidence that people have been there for a long time then people are important to that company, so it’s identifying items in the company that are important, like longevity and skill set and safety and basically is this a company that’s going to be around for a while.

SD: And to those who are looking to implement, those are things that they should focus on because you want to build your own automation expertise. You want to build your own next generation regardless of automation for the first time or major change in technology inside the organization, it’s important to have that stability and that longevity because the learning along the way creates the expertise that you need to drive success in the business.

DO: You find out that when you come out of school and stuff like that, you’re hungry to advance and you’re hungry, you want to get to the top as quick as possible. And the problem with coming to the top as quick as possible is that most of the time you don’t get the experience of what it was like at the bottom. So understanding what it’s like at the bottom makes you stronger when you get up closer to the top.

SD: Someone once gave me a really interesting analogy for that in my career, and I don’t even remember what the issue was, but I was asking for help, said I can help you, but that would be like me providing you a helicopter to go to the top of Mount Everest. Yeah, I can get you there and you can say you were at the top, but you didn’t earn it. You didn’t take the journey, you didn’t learn how to mountain climb. And so how does that actually help you? And I thought that was a really interesting analogy, making sure that you learn along the way you need that experience. You have to take the journey.

DO: Yeah, I did find that when I first started work, it was like every three years would be like a plateau. So you would, you would go in, you’d start a job, and then after a while, three years or so, you hit a plateau where you basically know everything there is to know about your job. There’s not much more that you can get. And that’s generally when I would start kind of looking around. Looking for more or for internally or externally.

SD:  Well, D’Arcy, this is a topic that was different from what we normally tackle inside the Enabling Automation podcast, but I think it’s really important for those that are listening to understand the development and growth of the ecosystem and how giving to the ecosystem can also provide value back. And it’s on all of us that are part of this world to be able to create that next generation because we need more automators.

DO: Yeah, it’s people are a piece of the puzzle that you can’t ignore.

SD: Absolutely. A critical piece. Is there any closing thought that you want to leave the listener base with that we haven’t touched on already?

DO: No, I think I think we’re good at this point.

SD:  Well, then we did our jobs. We had a great chat. So, D’Arcy, thank you very much for joining us for the podcast today. I really appreciate your input and insight and what a great experience base to come from for somebody who’s created a kids club inside of an automation company and done so much in the community around the businesses that you’ve worked for. So thank you so much.

SD: Thank you. To the listeners. I very much hope that Episode Four provided a different viewpoint into the world of automation and hope that you’ll join us for episode five, which is building a sustainable high tech company. And we’ll be joined by Cheryl Gasparet, who has a really interesting background, having moved around the world to create these types of sustainable approaches to automation. So a lot to learn from her. Thank you very much for joining us today and I look forward to chatting with you next time.