With automation and artificial intelligence changing the nature of manufacturing work, many of the skills necessary to operate the plants of the future will be completely changing in the next decade.

Key to plant operations running smoothly are the maintenance professionals tasked with keeping the production line equipment in good repair. But attaining the best staff can be challenging, given the current manufacturing skills gap. Deloitte’s new study estimates nearly 4.6 million manufacturing jobs will likely need to be filled in the next decade. Yet, due to the lack of skilled workers, over two million of those jobs are predicted to stay open.

According to a report from McKinsey Global Institute’s research program, more than half of the companies surveyed said they would have to help build the workforce of the future. In order to do that, businesses have five options: retrain and teach employees’ the skills; redeploy or redefine work tasks and processes; hire people with the right skills; contract external temporary workers; and release workers without the necessary skills by either attrition or layoffs.

For those manufacturers looking to train either new or existing workers, a good technical program that is cost-effective and ensures employees develop the skills their jobs demand will be an imperative. Therefore, businesses will have to take a critical look at competency-based teaching and learning methods.

The Learning Pyramid for Manufacturers

A common trope used to explain the ways in which people gain knowledge is the learning pyramid. This approach breaks up different learning activities into categories, such as lecturing, reading, practicing, etc. Studies show that those using passive ways of learning, such as listening in a classroom or reading a textbook, retain less of the material than those using active methods, such as practicing a task or teaching others how to do it.

In manufacturing environments, using demonstration to train personnel is typically referred to as the buddy system. This is when a seasoned professional takes a rookie onto the plant floor and shows him or her how to troubleshoot problems and fix equipment. In terms of retention rates, it is more effective than a classroom setting, but the method does come with drawbacks, namely the passing down of both good and bad habits to a nascent employee.

Teaching by having learners practice a skill produces some of the best retention rates. However, in a manufacturing environment where there is both expensive and potentially dangerous equipment, having a newbie take a shot at fixing machinery might not be the most cost-effective training method.

This is where simulation can help. In simulation training, real conditions are artificially represented as an instructional strategy for students to learn and practice problem-solving skills in a realistic environment, but without the risk of danger. For this reason, simulation training is particularly useful in applications, such as the manufacturing plant floor, where trainees could cause harm to others or themselves, or damage expensive equipment.

Simulation Tools for Training

For high rates of engagement and maximum material retention, learners interacting with simulation tools can practice on equipment and observe the changes they make, allowing them to explore “what if” scenarios and test hypotheses. Plus, practicing activities is done in a safe way, so no students can actually harm themselves, others, or equipment.

Moreover, simulation software that employs cutting-edge graphics and video game techniques can use gamification methods to teach. Gamification is the concept of using game design elements to motivate participation and engagement in some existing entity, whether it be with a website, app, brand, etc.

In training applications, gamification elements can take the form of leaderboards, merit badges and buttons to encourage peer competition and motivate both new workers and existing staff to learn more skills. Using gamification to teach manufacturing workers’ skills, such as how to operate programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and sensors, can be effective, but must be designed properly so trainees are not just interacting with a game, but with actual concepts.

By using instructional 3-D simulation tools, a more immersive experience can be provided for those learning how to operate advanced automated equipment and solve electrical maintenance problems on the plant floor. For instance, when trainees interact with 3-D simulation tools, they can look around a simulated plant environment and make observations, such as if there is water on the floor, and see how these conditions affect operations. This element provides observational stimulation that is important for the development of the critical thinking skills required of a manufacturing staff.

Attracting a Younger Generation of Manufacturers with Simulation

Another benefit of using digital simulation tools is to attract a younger generation to the manufacturing workforce. The manufacturing industry had been in a decline for the last few decades in Western countries, and these jobs were not seen as promising nor desirable.

Now, the modern production plant is employing advanced automation and cleaner technology, so the vision of manufacturing being dark and dirty is quickly becoming antiquated. Even so, millennial and Gen Z job seekers are largely not looking to manufacturing as a career path.

Therefore, manufacturers that use digital simulation training can signal to those entering the workforce that they are ready for the future and will prepare their workers with the skills needed to succeed. Plus, the younger generations have grown up playing video games and are comfortable using and learning from them.

Additionally, the new generation of workers want a custom experience in their training, not just a one-size-fits-all approach. Younger people also want training to be on multiple platforms to enable training whenever and wherever. Additionally, the training needs to be an immersive and competitive experience involving gamification elements, as previously described.

Simulation training tools that incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) technologies can help identify strengths and weaknesses of a user and plan the best route of learning for each individual. This technology can help learners more effectively reach their goals by matching their progress and performance data with the difficulty of the training provided.

Also, having AI helps management train and assess workers’ skill levels. This helps busy human resources departments in screening manufacturing applicants without requiring them to be physically present on-site. For example, a digital assessment test can be created and sent to job applicants to gather information about their technical skill level before spending time and money to bring them in for interviews.

Upskill Existing Workers

Baby boomers are retiring in droves, which is not only leaving open positions behind them, but also taking out years of institutional knowledge from organizations. On the other hand, older workers who are still in the workforce and dealing with increasing advanced automation in plants need upskilling quickly.

However, finding ways to inspire and motivate older workers who have a wealth of knowledge, but may be resistant to change and new ways of doing things, can be challenging. Remember, there is a benefit to keeping the wealth of legacy manufacturing knowledge to inform digital processes in the plant. Therefore, gamification also can be useful in training older workers, as well as the next generation.

For operations that are becoming more automated, heed this warning: If new technology is added without making any changes to training or other processes, the organization will just consist of the same people with the same skills running the plant. At best, the new investment will be either used improperly or not up to its potential. At worst, the new technology won’t be used at all. Training is key for incorporating new technology that will transform your organization. 

Debra Schug

Debra Schug is a freelance writer, as well as the communications manager for Simutech Multimedia, a company providing simulation-based training tools for the manufacturing industry. www.simutechmultimedia.com

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