The manufacturing environment is changing. With the rapid advancement of new technology, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for manufacturers to find workers with the appropriate training to run the plant. The workforce needs skills such as problem solving, computer-aided design (CAD), coding, 3D printing operations, robotics, and IoT networking and analytics.
Smart manufacturing requires a workforce of experts who know how to run sophisticated plant equipment, including automation systems, 3D printing, IoT networks, robotics, and data analytics. (Image source: MIT)
Manufacturing analysts say tech skills need to be part of plant training as well as part of the education system. “Our current education system was formed during the Enlightenment, and it’s like a factory. The kids get recess breaks just like an industrial factory. With workforce integration, companies have to take a look at changing the old model, and I think it starts in our schools,” Brian Federal, a futurist at Prana Communications, told Design News. “The change will take time. It’s like a large ship in the ocean with momentum—it turns very slowly. Our current education system needs an update. Changes in how kids are being educated is not moving as quickly as the technological changes.”
Federal will be part of the panel presentation, "Workforce Integration in the New Age of Smart Manufacturing," at the Atlantic Design and Manufacturing Show in New York City on June 13.
Can the Existing Workforce Run Smart Tech?
In-plant training needs to take a large role in creating a skilled workforce for advanced industrial technology. Ideally, the worker who is losing a job to automation could be trained in more sophisticated skills. “Workers are going to have to learn more or lose their jobs. The robots will be tightening the bolts, so workers will have to update their knowledge base,” said Federal. “They will have to take classes and look at different ways of working. Augmented reality is a good tool for educating workers in the manufacturing setting.”
Not all transitions to smart manufacturing will meet that ideal. Some manual workers won’t be able to make the transition to running technology. “The guy turning the bolt may never become a robot programmer. The technology development is moving fast. The disruption is happening on every level,” said Federal. “There is already a huge issue about finding people who can do these jobs. Can the guy who turns the bolt run smart technology? I don’t know.”
Kids Need to Learn Technology at an Early Age
Federal believes the education system needs to prepare children for a world where skilled workers are highly valued. “Kids can start to learn these things when they’re young,” said Federal. “I was in a class and I saw this kid sitting in a chair who was so young his feet didn’t touch the ground. Yet he was working on a CAD program—just like an engineer. He said, ‘I’m working this program and I’m not very good at it.’ I said, ‘You’re great!’ Yet his parents have no idea how to support him.”
If the education system meets this new challenge, and if plants develop effective training programs, the workforce gap will close in a few years. If not, the gap will just get wider. “We’re seeing training in technology move up from kids playing to industrial CAD programs for machines,” said Federal. “Kids need to move into the workforce with appropriate skills. This will require a combination of education and job training. Schools need to teach the new skills, and companies need to offer them ongoing training.”
Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 17 years, 15 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.
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