AR and the Connected Workforce: The Answer to the Manufacturing Employment Gap




Between now and 2026, U.S. manufacturing companies need to fill nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs – yet about 2 million of the positions may remain open because of a skills gap. This data comes from a 2016 report from the Subcommittee for Advanced Manufacturing of the National Science and Technology Council. At the time of the report, 80% of manufacturers reported a moderate-to-serious shortage of qualified applicants for skilled and highly skilled production positions.

A 2016 pwc report, Upskilling Manufacturing, indicates that U.S. manufacturing companies can expect to see the talent shortage worsening in the next three years. The report also says that as manufacturing adopts more advanced technologies, the need to upskill existing workers will likely intensify.

Enter augmented reality (AR), the technology that may just have the power to change those statistics. Brian Ballard, CEO and co-founder of Upskill, a company that builds enterprise software for industrial AR wearables, believes that AR could be fundamental in closing employment gaps for manufacturing companies. And with such an advantage, these organizations could gain greater agility along with a competitive differentiation.

“Today, the factory floors are not the dank factories that we think of when we look at old black and white photos,” Ballard says. “There is continuous monitoring and the Internet of Thing in place, along with other complex systems that are now driving design and manufacturing. As advanced manufacturing benefits from new, innovative technology, people in factories must have computer literacy so they can access a desktop and information in the connected design-to-production digital thread.”

According to Ballard, when the bar of computer literacy is lowered for “desk-less” workers, these folks can excel in their manufacturing roles without necessarily needing to be a master in a specific computer application. This is particularly important as the concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and connected manufacturing evolves.

“When there are connected smart factories and smart products, but people using them are not connected, there is a significant point of friction between the things being built and the folks building them,” Ballard says. “For instance, there are billions of dollars invested in ERP, manufacturing execution, and design systems. But then down on the factory floor, there is often a part of the factory that is not automated or connected to the human workforce. This juxtaposition cannot exist and be efficient at the same time.”

Ballard explains that if a company has one set of tools and capabilities moving at the speed of innovation but the other side – the people side – is stagnating, it can cause a significant rift. “I believe that the connected workforce concept is going to be a game changer. It will bring the human part of this equation up to a point where it too moves at the speed of innovation.” He adds, “Once you have technology like the Internet of Things on both the people and the process side, you can layer on other things – like artificial intelligence to help the decision making process and analytics for greater insights. Then you can have not only augmented reality, but also augmented intelligence.”

With intelligence like that, Ballard believes there will be greater give and take within the manufacturing process, especially as people on the production floor gain the capability to automatically identify errors. “With augmented intelligence, people will have the ability to quickly send information back into the flow of manufacturing execution systems, all the way up to the designers,” Ballard says. “Companies can then correct errors on the assembly line on the fly. The feedback loop becomes much tighter and with it, the speed of production can increase, and error rates drop.”

Ballard believes that this kind of frictionless interaction between people and the systems they operate is a fundamental requirement for the optimal performance of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

What do engineers need to consider when thinking about the connected workforce? There are already sophisticated practices in product design around the assembly of products, Ballard notes, but the void is how those practices get translated to the people workforce. “There are really amazing CAD systems for the design side, but the output of the designs is 2-D paper printed instructions. These now need to be in a native format that is augmented reality friendly.”

For this to be achieved, Ballard explains that designers should gain a hands-on understanding of the manufacturing environment. “This is tricky because not every designer is going to have the experience of how the factory floor is set up and what it looks like,” Ballard says. “Because of this, I believe we’re going to see tool designers create a way for the people on the manufacturing floor to participate in the ‘build instruction process.’ They will then be able to take that data and adjust it so that it’s accessible in the form that they can engage with when they’re building. This is one of the requirements that needs to be built over the next couple of years in order to enable really broad scale adoption of mixed augmented reality.”

 

Image by Toyota UK on Flickr (CC by 2.0)