MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Hyundai Motor Co. expected problems finding enough trained technicians to tend its army of robots when it began building a massive assembly plant here five years ago.
Plans called for the $1.1 billion factory to be one of the most automated in the world -- no human touches the vehicle until it enters the paint shop -- yet the local work force already was suffering from a dearth of skilled labor.
So Hyundai did something it had never done before: It trained its own robotics experts.
In a homegrown program developed for the Alabama plant, Hyundai plucks production workers from its assembly line and trains them to maintain, repair and even program robots used to make Sonata sedans and Santa Fe crossovers.
"When you talk about robots and robot technicians, they are not prevalent throughout many industries, so there's not a good source to pull from," says Robert Katzenbach, senior manager of Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama LLC's weld department from 2003 to 2006.
"We looked at our own team members, and what we saw was a lot of bright, motivated people who wanted to contribute to our success. We really felt like we could train them."
More than 100 production workers have gone through the robotics training course since its inception in March 2004. Of those, between 60 and 70 have been tapped as full-time "robot keepers" charged with programming the more than 250 welding and material handling robots in the plant's body shop, as well as maintaining weld and sealer schedules and overseeing weld quality.