Augmented Reality (AR) has a variety of current and potential applications – from healthcare to sports to manufacturing and field service. As forward-thinking enterprises explore AR, they seek not only to assist with tasks or streamline projects, but they are considering how AR can be used in knowledge transfer as the workforce ages.
The manufacturing industry can expect a shortage of 10 million workers globally, with two million of those in the U.S. according to a joint study by the World Economic Forum and Deloitte. Interestingly, the average age for a skilled manufacturing worker in the U.S. today is 56 years old. As skilled workers in manufacturing and the related field service industry begin to retire, organizations will need to seek new ways to address the gap in the workforce.
How can AR be used for knowledge transfer so that a generation of experienced workers to pass on their skills? In the webinar Friends or Enemies – The Relationship Between Augmented Reality (AR) and IoT (which is available on-demand) the panelists discussed many topics around these technologies including knowledge transfer in field service as the older, experienced generation begins to retire and new workers take on their roles.
Much of the knowledge held by expert field service technicians is in their heads – they know how to diagnose a problem and fix it through years of experience and rarely need to consult a manual or ask for help. As these Baby Boomers reach retirement age, will Millennials and Gen Z be able to step up? Leveraging technology, such as Augmented Reality, is one way to help with the knowledge transfer. And, since the younger generation is already adept at using technology in their personal lives, it can be leveraged effectively on the job as well.
A Talent Shortage in Field Service
In an excellent four-part series in Field Service Matters, Sumair Dutta outlines the talent shortage in the field service industry and discusses what can be done to stem the tide. He points to a survey conducted by The Manpower Group which shows that 40% of employers have difficulty filling roles, and skilled trade positions – electricians, carpenters, welders, etc. – are the hardest to fill. This is the highest talent shortage rate in a decade, and some of reasons for the shortage include lower enrollment in vocational and technical schools and an aging workforce.
With an aging workforce, both the number of workers and talent levels begin to drop. As a result, smart companies are making investments in technology to ensure that the “tribal knowledge” contained within the minds of the existing workforce remains within the walls of the field service organization.
Fortunately, today’s younger generation are digital natives who are comfortable with technology and expect up-to-date technology in the workplace. This delivers an opportunity for new technologies such as AR.
Combatting Knowledge Loss
So, what can be done as experienced field service workers retire? A survey by The Service Council asked respondents how they planned to combat this knowledge loss. The answers show management strategies to sustain a talented workforce. Many of these formalize existing relationships and could be supplemented with AR tools.
Improving connections in the workplace is an often-overlooked solution. Currently, very few field service organizations have formalized succession planning at the technician level. Mentorship programs, which partner younger field engineers with more experienced workers, can also be extremely powerful in improving knowledge transfer and increasing engagement and camaraderie.
To capture and retain knowledge, there needs to be a dedicated focus by the organization. Newer tools, such as live video recording and Augmented Reality can help.
Augmented Reality can help Close the Gap
In The Service Council’s recent research on Augmented Reality in service, more than 6 out of 10 companies are evaluating AR technology for use in a field service or customer support environment.
Technology, and specifically AR, can act as a knowledge expander to spread know-how and expertise to a wider audience. This means not everyone in the field needs to be a subject matter expert because they can easily tap into the knowledge of an existing expert or community of experts.
The top two factors driving interest in AR are the increasing complexity of products and the aging workforce. A move towards a centralized expert model – which leverages the experienced technician – and the technology-savvy of a younger workforce are also significant factors.
AR in Practice
Here’s how it could work:
Service procedures conducted by experienced field service technicians can be captured on video, that video can be integrated with an AR model and made available to multiple field service agents or trainees for training purposes. This centralized expert model, supported by AR tools, replaces the need for the experienced technician to continually demonstrate how things are done or to physically conduct a ride-along on service calls in a training capacity. Used for training or performance support, these sessions amplify the reach of experienced field service technicians.
In addition, AR can allow skilled workers to act as remote guides for less experienced employees. This offers an opportunity for workers who are approaching retirement to work part-time or from home as their expertise is needed. It allows one highly skilled employee to have “many hands,” working through less skilled workers (using AR systems and visuals as guides), effectively multiplying their value.
Augmented Reality can also be used to improve remote support. Customers on-site can work with technical support to appropriately resolve service issues without a field service dispatch. And, if a dispatch is eventually needed, the AR session can be used to help determine that the right service technician with the right parts is sent to see the customer.
Another important scenario where AR training is extremely relevant is in safety applications. In 2014, there were close to 3.2 million non-fatal accidents that resulted in at least four calendar days of absence from work and 3,739 fatal accidents in the European Union. The European project ANGELS (Augmented Reality Network Generating Learning on Safety) conducted a trial of safety training using traditional methods and AR. Three-fourths of the trainees preferred the AR system, and a post-assessment questionnaire showed that the AR system improved the knowledge level of the trainees.
As our skilled workforce ages and begins to retire, their valuable knowledge can be lost. Augmented Reality can help with the knowledge transfer to the next generation – across many industries, but especially important in field service. By gathering information from a skilled worker, you can develop augmented work instructions. This can aid in how to do a complex repair on a piece of equipment, and then be integrated into a centralized training model to teach the younger generation to effectively gain these skills.