Intelligent Automation: Meet a Timken Production-Line Architect

Manufacturing process engineering is about turning ideas — concepts sketched on a whiteboard — into a detailed reality of more efficient production layouts, machines, robots and processes. For Bernie Ulmer, general manager of process design and development, it’s about aligning global teams around a single vision and bringing it to life.

In this article, Ulmer talks about his work, his leadership approach, and his view of global trends in manufacturing automation.

How did you land on manufacturing process engineering and a career in leadership?

Ulmer: If you’ve ever seen the Dilbert comic about The Knack — that was me as a kid: obsessed with taking things apart, learning how they work and fixing them. I started at Torrington in 1997 and when Timken acquired the company in 2003, I relocated to the Asheboro, North Carolina plant and began leading larger, high-visibility projects.

Starting in 2015, I spent four years in China helping the Wuxi team modernize and automate roller production lines and installing a line for large tapered roller bearings. Last year we completed an automated line for wind turbine bearings in Wuxi, China, which was quite an achievement. This year, we are working on an even larger line for wind bearings in Xiangtan, China, as well as a new plant in Bharuch, India.

I’ve always been incredibly driven to achieve project goals and targets. Early on, I realized I could do that more effectively as a leader than as an individual contributor. I enjoy helping coach and drive teams toward their true north.


What does your role involve?

Ulmer: I help architect modern production lines and plant layouts. I advocate for concepts with automation and new technologies that result in improved productivity and output along with the project budgets. There’s a lot at stake with these large capital projects. It can take two years to fill in all the details and build things out, while we go through constant refinements. My job is to keep everyone focused and aligned so that what starts off as a sketch on a whiteboard becomes a fully engineered, live system.

What are the implications of manufacturing automation for the Timken workforce?

Ulmer: The operators we hire into our facilities today expect to work in a modern, automated plant. We are strategic about where we implement automation.  We use human intelligence where it’s needed — not for robotic movements of product. Robots and material handling perform complex monotonous tasks quickly and accurately, freeing the workforce to do more meaningful and fulfilling work.

“Modernization helps us make sure operators are engaged in their work and motivated to stay and grow their careers at Timken.”

Bernie Ulmer
General Manager of Process Design and Development

With modern equipment, we are achieving premium Timken® quality at a higher rate of productivity and reducing space and cost with more clear and efficient line flows. Global trends indicate rising labor costs and increased difficulty hiring qualified workers. Modernization helps us make sure operators are engaged in their work and motivated to stay and grow their careers at Timken.

What’s your leadership strategy for these large, global projects?

Ulmer: In my career, I’ve found communication and alignment to be every bit as important as technical know-how. My style is straightforward: Don’t play games. Be truthful and sincere. Focus on the issues and get to the root cause. Transparency is a must, to make sure we’re all on the same page all the time. We want everything exposed, whether it’s good or bad.

I’m a grassroots leader with a focus on driving the team to meet their own goals. I ask team members to present their own work, and I give credit where it’s due. Hiring and retaining people is a big challenge today. I focus on giving people fun challenges and growing their careers so that when I want to retire, there will be people ready to take my place.

Interior of Timken plant in Xiangtan, China.

A career at Timken comes with training opportunities, such as the Operations Development Program and Manufacturing Academy, designed to cultivate manufacturing leadership.