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Technology Plays Role In Manufacturing Skills Gap, Also Offers Solution

There are technologies that can address the skills gap and keep employees at the center of production, and do so without slowing the pace of work.

Manufacturing has undergone dramatic change in the last several decades, and now machines are creating many of the connected, smart products that consumers demand. Automation plays a critical role in production, which means that many tasks that have been historically managed by skilled workers are now being done by machines.

Fortunately, workers have not been fully replaced by automated systems. Trained, educated employees are as important as they have ever been to the manufacturing industry, even as their roles change. But they should find new ways to add value, and continually develop expertise that cannot be relegated to machines.

Employers want to help their workers develop new skills, but many don’t know how to further train personnel without halting production or taking people away from their posts. If manufacturers cannot identify solutions, the skills gap that threatens the industry is likely to persist into the future.

The good news? There are technologies that can address the skills gap and keep employees at the center of production, and do so without slowing the pace of work.

The Challenges of Industry 4.0

The manufacturing industry is beset by change on all sides, from new economic realities affecting production and the value chain, to changing consumer demands and products that now come embedded with sensors to store or send digitized information. While these and other developments offer unprecedented opportunities, they also can bring challenges that must be surmounted if a manufacturer is to remain competitive.

The industry has already been disrupted by mechanization, industrialization, and electronic automation. And now we are in another period of disruption, with the introduction of “smart” automation and production, and of products that can communicate with one another and with the machines that built them. At Deloitte, we refer to this current period of innovation as “Industry 4.0.”

This is an exciting time, but a difficult one for traditional manufacturers to continuously deliver value. To do so effectively, they need a highly skilled and trained workforce.

Evolving demand is top of mind for manufacturers, as new technologies and services give consumers the option to order personalized, custom-made goods. Consumers can easily take part in the design and manufacture of certain products today, which means they are often less inclined to buy mass-produced goods.

The products being manufactured are also rapidly changing. Our information-based society tends to gravitate toward products that collect and share data, as the “Internet of Things” continues to gain ground. Cars, clothing, appliances, and medical devices are just a few of the things that now come ready to connect with other devices and send information to cloud databases.

Manufacturers also contend with technological advances like 3D printing, lower-cost robotics, and widespread Internet connectivity; in turn, smaller players can now compete with large-scale manufacturers for the first time.

Technology Can Help Overcome These Challenges

Since manufacturers create different goods for diverse groups of customers — and do so under different conditions — there is no single playbook for how traditional manufacturers can stay competitive as their world changes.

But training workers to thrive in the era of Industry 4.0 is something that will likely benefit all manufacturers. The spread of automation, rather than causing significant job loss, simply means that learning advanced skills has never been so important.

Manufacturers should become adept at reading and interpreting the information that comes from machines and, increasingly, from products. This ability can enable workers to identify and neutralize risks in the manufacturing process, and predict where future problems might occur before they do.

But too few workers have these skills.

Executives and CEOs understand the problem, but many are in a quandary over what to do about it. How can the operation continue to run smoothly and meet production goals if employees are in classrooms for hours every day?

Technology, which to some degree has widened the skills gap and brought other challenges to manufacturers, also offers solutions. Now that everything else in the factory is connected, the training experience can be too.

VR and AR as Educational Tools

Augmented reality (AR), which overlays digital information onto the real world, and virtual reality (VR), which offers an immersive, digital environment, offer powerful learning tools. VR and AR programs are a way to bring the instruction to the place where it is needed, as opposed to making employees leave work behind to attend classes.

For manufacturers who are most concerned about keeping up the pace of production during educational sessions, AR offers a viable option. Using a phone or headset with these capabilities, workers can remain at their stations — and even operate machines — while learning.

Lessons on complex assembly, maintenance, expert support, risk mitigation and quality assurance — all areas that continue to change rapidly — can be delivered via AR to the employee while engaged in these tasks. And when new lessons are added, they can simply be streamed to the AR device without a slowdown in work or production.

VR is also an effective learning tool, especially when it comes to manufacturing processes that pose physical danger to workers. Rather than learning on the job with the potential to make mistakes, workers can train for difficult jobs in virtual environments.

Connected, smart gadgets have created a world of new challenges for manufacturers. But when it comes to addressing the skills gap, connected gadgets may offer new solutions. Nevertheless, human expertise will always be paramount for businesses to stay competitive.

AR and VR offer ways to improve workers’ skills without slowing down production, and manufacturers should explore these means so that employees can stay at the center of operations as Industry 4.0 moves forward.

Michael Gretczko is a principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP and General Manager of ConnectMe. Ina Gantcheva and Michael Griffiths are both Principals with Deloitte’s Human Capital practice.