By Jacob Barron

“For us, we can’t just hire people and put them in a job; we need to qualify them in order to do the job,” said Benjamin Hoffmann, manager of polymer technologies at STIHL Inc.

Benjamin Hoffman, manager of polymer technologies, STIHL Inc. accepts the Processor of the Year award fromPlastics News Senior Reporter Bill Bregar.

Plastics News named STIHL Inc. their Processor of the Year at their Executive Forum in Lake Las Vegas earlier this month. For Benjamin Hoffmann, manager of polymer technologies at STIHL Inc., who accepted the award on his company’s behalf, the occasion was cause for gratitude, but also for gratification. “For us, we wanted to see how we benchmarked against others in the industry, and see if what we’re doing was the right thing, or if there were others we could learn from. That was really why we participated,” he said. “Receiving the award is confirmation that all we’ve been doing has been in the right direction, and so we’re going to continue doing what we’ve done so far.”

When asked what distinguished STIHL processing operations from other processing operations, Hoffmann’s first thought was that company’s commitment to automation. “When you look at the size and the level of automation I think that’s where we had a lot of things to show,” he said. “The scope of the automation we have, and also the pure size of our operation were some of the main differences. We have about 90 machines. Others typically only have between 20 and 30.”

STIHL committed to the concept of factory automation early, sometime in the 2000s according to Hoffmann, but the negative connotations that often go with the term “automation” don’t apply to STIHL. “We have embraced the automation concept in order to stay competitive. By the end of this year we’ll have about 151 robots, but one of the remarkable things is that no full time employee has ever been laid off due to automation,” Hoffmann said. “Through automation, we make our processes more efficient, and give people the opportunity to train to get into higher paid jobs, like programming robots or maintaining them. It’s a huge efficiency gain for us.”

“It’s a big advantage for us because among our employees there’s no hesitation when you put a new robot on the show floor,” he added, noting that some employees even make suggestions for what can be automated next. “A lot of employees will come up and say ‘I’m doing this repetitive task, can we automate this?,’” Hoffmann said.

STIHL has also operated an apprenticeship program since 1984, long before the manufacturing skills gap threatened companies with staffing shortages. “At that point the skills gap wasn’t that predominant,” Hoffmann said, noting that today the STIHL apprenticeship program looks much different from how it looked 30 years ago. “We have varied class sizes and apprentice programs. It used to be more of the mechanical side, but the focus has really shifted over the last two or three years to mechatronics, so really what we need are people that understand the mechanics, but also the electronics,” he said. “For us, ultimately we don’t get the skilled people out on the job market or straight from college or high school. We can’t just hire people and put them in a job; we need to qualify them in order to do the job.”

SPI operates its own workforce management tools to members (see more here) but the STIHL philosophy regarding automation as a means to increase efficiency rather than reduce head count, and its approach to educating and building its own workforce, should serve as an example of the ideal way to run a modern manufacturing facility. They remain among the most innovative, automated companies in the industry, but they still recognize that their most valuable resource is their people. Prioritizing the things that STIHL prioritizes goes a long way toward supporting the plastics industry’s continued growth and development, with an eye toward who’ll be running facilities not today, or tomorrow, but years down the road.

“The companies that comprise SPI’s membership are on the cutting edge of their industry and are consistently innovating—technologically, operationally, environmentally—in a way that’s a credit to plastics,” said William R. Carteaux, SPI president and CEO. “STIHL makes bold, innovative investments in their operational infrastructure, all while showing as much respect for their business as for their employees, and serves as a model of modern corporate stewardship and a long-term commitment to growth and productivity. Their win of this year’s Processor of the Year Award is richly deserved.”