Can Augmented Reality Finally Solve the Industrial Skills Gap?
Written by: Brant Henne

Read Time: 3 min

Our Vuforia Live event has been a fantastic opportunity to share customer success stories, discuss the business strategies driving augmented reality (AR) adoption, and dive deep into the current state of PTC's AR offerings. And AR is proving to be both valuable and timely, as the country finds itself in a massive labor crunch.

Addressing the industrial skills gap has long been a driver for adopting industrial AR. More and more expert employees are retiring from the workforce, and US companies are struggling to replace them. And though the skills gap has long been smoldering, the global pandemic has poured gasoline on the fire. Travel restrictions and social distancing guidelines have severely limited when, where, and how many employees can operate in any given workplace. And the highly skilled operators and technicians that companies depend upon have also been the group most at risk for complications from COVID-19.

If you’re experiencing these problems in your organization, the ramifications are self-evident. For others, here’s the broader context: CNN reports that over the next decade, over 2.1 million US manufacturing jobs will remain unfilled. The cost of this skills gap is projected to exceed $1 trillion by 2030.

The good news is that industrial augmented reality—which overlays digital information onto physical objects and environments in the workplace and enables collaboration across physical distance—saw a rapid uptick in adoption over the past year. AR proved itself to be highly effective in solving many of the challenges associated with social distancing and remote work in industrial environments. What’s even better? AR is also becoming a longer-term solution for empowering a new generation of skilled talent.

The present moment may prove to be an inflection point, where we look back and see that AR began to unwind the skills gap crisis. To understand why, we should continue to look at how industrial AR has been utilized during the pandemic.

Opportunity emerges

The past year has forced us to innovate at an accelerated speed. Schools and knowledge workers went virtual at a moment’s notice. Restaurants worked with municipalities to create new dining spaces. And manufacturers accelerated their digital transformation journeys. Companies adopted new digital transformation practices to optimize production, get a handle on supply chains, and increase their lean operating capacity. Some companies even pivoted their operations to reflect shifting market demand, produce PPE, or support vaccine distribution. And as these companies made these pivots, AR was often used to help guide the frontline employees making it happen.

AR during the pandemic

Prior to the pandemic, many industrial companies were understandably slow to embrace change. But one side-effect of a crisis is that change becomes involuntary—creating conditions that require you to try new things. And as manufacturing and service companies weathered the crisis, many started adopting new solutions like industrial AR to adapt and overcome their challenges. Some even used AR to directly confront the pandemic.

For example, many companies participated in the VentilatorChallengeUK, where ventilator manufacturers used Vuforia Expert Capture to quickly create AR-based instructions for producing ventilators. These AR experiences were then shared with automotive and aerospace manufacturers, who used that content to ramp up production of these life-saving machines—despite their frontline teams being previously untrained on medical device manufacturing processes.

In another example, Henkel adopted Vuforia Chalk to provide AR-powered technical support to over 30 plants around the globe. Chalk is enabling Henkel’s senior experts to provide assistance remotely and quickly resolve issues that would otherwise result in downtime. Among Chalk’s benefits is its ability to resolve these problems without sending experts on site—which is key to understanding AR’s long-term value beyond the pandemic.

AR’s longer-term role in supporting and accelerating skill development

During the crisis, industrial companies embraced AR solutions to continue operations under specific restrictions, such as social distancing guidelines. But in doing so, AR demonstrated clear value in addressing longer-term problems like the skills gap and employee engagement. AR’s high-profile successes have garnered it broader attention—which is now leading more industrial companies of all sizes to consider industrial augmented reality to address upskilling, cross-skilling, and other skills gap-focused initiatives.

Augmented reality and onboarding new hires

AR’s ability to speed up the training process and improve training outcomes has been well documented. As US companies begin the herculean task of adjusting back to pre-pandemic levels of demand, onboarding and training must be key components. Particularly as some unemployed and underemployed people shifted to new fields, or relocated to manage the cost of living, simply rehiring furloughed or former employees is not always feasible. And, even if employees are returning to previous positions, they may require retraining to refresh or learn new processes. AR can be key to getting new hires from the front door to the shop floor.

Augmented reality and guiding existing employees

This past year underscored the need for resiliency in the face of rapidly changing market conditions. Whether your business ramped up production due to a surge in demand, saw a drop in production due to reduced demand or supply chain limitations, or you had to pivot to new products entirely, the need for agility became clear.

As companies made these shifts, they leverage AR for more than just training new employees. AR can be invaluable in providing on-the-job, step-by-step guidance to existing teams. This can be invaluable for supporting a new process or product variant. It can also help reduced staffs support a wider array of processes and operations, in both manufacturing and service settings.

Augmented reality and supporting aging experts

Over the past year, AR remote assistance solutions like Chalk have proven to be a cost-effective way for senior experts to more fully support technicians and customers without having to go on site. This reduced the impact of travel restrictions and social distancing measures; it also helped protect older, more vulnerable employees from potential exposure.

Moving forward, the value of being able to amplify and expand support with AR remote assistance will prove to be invaluable to solving the skills gap crisis. It allows existing experts to support more constituents, while incentivizing experts to remain in the workforce longer—thanks to a less-demanding travel and support schedule. It may also even help entice back experts who have recently left the workforce.

Supporting employee experience and engagement with AR

People-centric digital tools—particularly AR—are key ingredients in engaging current and new employees. It is incumbent upon management to address the physical, professional, intellectual, and emotional needs of a workforce that has been completely upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing and remote work will likely continue to play some part in the everyday interactions of the workplace. As employees return, anxiety may remain high as personal interactions have been virtual, limited, or non-existent over past year. And people will have had a year to consider and prioritize their personal and professional needs.

Augmented reality can help make the return to work safer, easier, and more exciting. It can also attract new talent and get them up to speed quickly. But one of the great people-first benefits of AR is that it builds engagement, confidence, and competency. If the current state of employment is any indication—it’s an applicant’s market. Responsible, forward-looking employers should be considering augmented reality and other digital tools that don’t just restore human connectivity but move it forward to create not just a new normal, but a better one.

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Tags: Augmented Reality Digital Transformation
About the Author Brant Henne

As a Content Strategy Manager, I thrive on engaging technology stories. There's no shortage of these stories at PTC; we're helping entire industries use the IoT and AR to transform their business.