Executive need to listen

ARTICLE | | October 18, 2021 | 4 min read

Wanted: Digital skills for smart factories

With digital skills in short supply, companies are looking for innovative ways to staff the factories of the future

By Janet Rae-Dupree, Workflow contributor

  • Manufacturers transitioning to digital operations face a widening skills gap
  • Smart factories require a workforce with both expertise in new technologies and an aptitude for teamwork
  • Personalized training and “snackable” learning content can help companies fill specific skill gaps

Digital transformation in manufacturing—with artificial intelligence, advanced automation and robotics, IoT, and other technologies—is hitting a speed bump. There aren’t enough workers with the skills needed for these increasingly digitized shop floors.

Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute estimate that 2.4 million jobs may be left unfilled by 2028, causing a potential loss of $2.5 trillion in manufacturing production. Half of manufacturers surveyed in Deloitte’s study say they lack enough people with the skills to implement an effective smart-factory strategy.

Manufacturers face a tough transition. They need to recruit, train, or retrain workers with the up-to-date—and hard-to-find—skills needed on modern factory floors. They require a workforce proficient in data science, automation, and other digital skills and adept at soft skills like collaboration, problem solving, and customer engagement.

“Companies need a lot more skilled workers in addition to the ones they already have,” said Stephen Laaper, manufacturing strategy and smart operations leader at Deloitte. “And all of their workers across the board have to work together in a way that has never been necessary before to drive the smart factory transformation.”


 The Secrets to Creating the Ultimate Workplace

Over the next few years, 40% of the manufacturing workforce will hit retirement age, taking with them valuable experience and institutional knowledge. But recent generations aren’t filling the gap, choosing to pursue more alluring opportunities in technology and other fields. Meanwhile, the pandemic doubled the normal rate of attrition in the manufacturing workforce, says Irene Petrick, a senior director of industrial innovation at Intel’s Internet of Things Group.

“The skills gap has widened because the number of people leaving manufacturing is accelerating,” Petrick says.


Manufacturing jobs left unfulfilled by 2028

What’s more, Petrick says, competition is intense for the digital skills already in short supply—expertise in data science, robotics and artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and augmented reality.

One solution is to rely more on automation, AI, and virtual reality to make do with fewer workers. But even though AI may be able to take over many manual processes, the new technologies still depend on workers trained to use it. And smart factories will have a critical need for human skills, including conceptual thinking, decision-making, and problem-solving.

Deloitte is building a demonstration facility, called The Smart Factory @ Wichita, to showcase advanced manufacturing technologies and illustrate the skills necessary to make them work. Scheduled to open in 2022, the project will include a full-scale production line and labs featuring such smart-factory applications as additive manufacturing, augmented-reality prototyping, and advanced materials.

The project brings together a complementary set of capabilities, including operational skills on the shop floor, IT and analytic skills to capture and derive actionable insights from vast amounts of data, and cybersecurity skills to safeguard against the risks that come with increased network connectivity.

All this requires an unprecedented degree of collaboration. “We need to work on breaking down silos between the areas of expertise,” Laaper says.

The challenge is finding and developing the cross-disciplinary skills to make the digital transformation happen. One approach is to develop personalized training programs in-house instead of relying on outside institutions like community colleges or trade schools.

In one study, researchers with the MIT Work of the Future project examined a large automaker that was adopting new technologies to prepare for future demand for electric and autonomous vehicles.

We need to work on breaking down silos between the areas of expertise.

To make sure employees are equipped with the needed skills, the company uses highly personalized training, often tailored for a specific person working on a specific machine. For more extensive training, the automaker has turned to outside institutions for material designed to teach the use of a specific technology.

Once employees gain new skills, the company has discovered, it becomes easier for them to adjust as newer technologies are added. “Skill upgrading begets further skill upgrading,” the authors write.

Customized training programs are replacing one-size-fits-all sessions. Intel, for example, creates specialized educational content—particularly about artificial intelligence—and distributes it to schools and colleges.

Intel’s Petrick calls this “snackable content”—certificate programs and constantly evolving one-off courses provided through public/private partnerships that target an organization’s specific needs. Many don’t require pursuit of a formal degree, and the emphasis is often retraining and upgrading workers’ existing skills for smart-factory technologies.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Labor Department awarded Arizona State University an $8 million grant to create a workforce development partnership for advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity, and information technology. Over the next four years, the program plans to train and place at least 2,000 participants with industry-recognized credentials in additive manufacturing, robotics and automation, and new battery technologies.

The technologies that power smart factories are rapidly changing, so companies need to adopt a culture of continual development of new skills, worker-training experts say. In large part, that means tapping into the critical-thinking skills of workers, says Mike Yost, creator of Project IGBYS, which matches volunteer experts with business owners seeking to move into smart manufacturing.

Yost’s organization’s website cites a quotation from philosopher Eric Hoffer: “In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves beautifully equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”


 The Secrets to Creating the Ultimate Workplace

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Janet Rae-Dupree has been covering innovation for more than two decades, specializing in writing about emerging technologies and the science of technology. She has been on staff at U.S. News & World Report, BusinessWeek, the L.A. Times, the San Jose Mercury News, the Silicon Valley Business Journal and a number of smaller publications.

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