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How to Build Manufacturing Skills in the Face of Automation

By: Ben Baldwin

February 24, 2022

How to Build Manufacturing Skills in the Face of Automation

Are the manufacturing skills of your workforce ready for automation?

Amid the progressive industry shifts of industry 4.0, rarely do we hear about training workforces with the required skills for automation. In fact, the subject of people and automation has been pretty much relegated to fearful statistics, focusing on job losses as opposed to the innovations people and technology can bring about together.

In light of this, we’d like to explore the manufacturing skills that will drive the industry to new successes alongside automation. Despite what people say, human beings and automation are two sides of the same proverbial manufacturing coin.

It makes sense that with the advancements of new technology, the capabilities of human beings should also be advancing at a similar rate. Otherwise, how will workforces fit within the innovations of the future?

Automation Is Coming for Tasks, Not Jobs

Certain aspects of any job are repetitive, which makes them prime candidates for automated machine processes. But most jobs cannot be fully replaced by robots and AI. A study looking at the risks of automation found that when taking into account the complexities of tasks within US jobs, the the automation rate drops from 38% to 9%, meaning that automation will take over specific tasks more than it will take over complete jobs.

Although there will most likely be a restructuring of jobs in the future, it is precisely because of the advancements of Industry 4.0 that full automation is not the end goal. If manufacturing today was like the industry of Henry Ford’s time with workers performing the same repetitive tasks, then automation would have taken over years ago. But now, things are much more complex.

Modern automation takes care of the repetitive and mundane aspects of day-to-day work while humans still drive the decision-making, problem-solving, and critical thinking aspects.

As the world becomes more connected with a worldwide base of customers, products are becoming more varied. For the modern world, a flexible production line that leverages the strengths of people and technology is needed.

People Are Irreplaceable

Let's take for example two professions that have simple repetitive actions alongside complex context-driven problem-solving: Bartenders and Doctors.

For bartending, there is no doubt that a machine would achieve greater levels of precision in drink-making than strictly human hands. You could even program robots to perform similar drink-making antics to entertain patrons. But that is not all that a bartender does. They listen to customers, make custom drinks, provide creative choices when asked, and serve to communicate with people.

Similarly, there are aspects of a doctor’s job that are repetitive and calculable, such as basic diagnosis and prescriptions. These actions could perhaps be better performed by a computer system. But what about problem-solving with families, understanding their needs, and discussing treatment plans?

people and technology

AI and automation are not at the level where they could fulfill all the tasks of either a bartender or a doctor. We still need people to drive these two professions in the future. But each one could be advanced through the use of automated processes and technology.

If we bring this idea back to manufacturing, engineers and operators perform a wide variety of tasks. Some tasks may be repetitive but a lot of the job includes problem-solving, coordinating with team members, and establishing creative goals and innovations. In the case of manufacturing models such as High-Mix Low-Volume manufacturing, people make line changeovers faster while automated computer processes take care of repetitive tasks that would otherwise be time-consuming.

Here is where the rubber meets the road. We can achieve the greatest Industry 4.0 innovation with people and cyber-physical systems working together. Humans still drive the process as they always have while sharing their work with tools like autonomous work instructions.

Preparing for the Future with Soft Manufacturing Skills

In a time when digital transformation and worldwide connectivity are advancing at an unprecedented rate, there needs to be a shift in our understanding of the basic skill sets that thrive within the industry. Instead of focusing on hard skills that will eventually go out-of-date, we need to focus on the soft skills that help us to learn and advance with modern technology.

The rest of the industry is thinking the same way. LinkedIn reported that 57% of leaders think soft skills are more important than hard skills. In another study, companies almost unanimously agreed that critical thinking and communication skills were more important than an undergraduate degree.

Let’s take a look at some of the most valuable soft manufacturing skills and how we can advance them alongside automation. By focusing on building these soft skills, people will be able to fill in the gaps of modern technology and vice versa.

Opening the Doorway for Communication

“Communication is at the very core of our society. That’s what makes us human.” - Jon Koum, CEO of Whatsapp

Being a good communicator is one of the greatest soft skills that a person can possess within any industry. And these communication skills are not just useful between people, they are extremely beneficial between people and computer systems. Let me explain.

To be a good communicator, there is a certain terminology and logic that needs to be used. It is the same with machines and software. If we can take this skill and use it to facilitate better comprehension and data transference between people and software, we will see a huge leap forward in the careers and successes of the industry.

Work instruction software is a prime example of how knowledge is communicated between people, machines, and systems. Process authors use communication skills to instruct operators on how a job is done while also facilitating interactions between machines and other systems. VKS then gathers production data that will be analyzed and used to further advance the operation.

Being a good communicator paves the way for people and systems to work together as a cohesive team and achieve the best the industry has to offer.

pro tip

Pro Tip: Use the VKS API to facilitate strong communication between all of your manufacturing systems.


Thinking Critically with Accurate Knowledge

Advancing critical thinking skills individually may not be as simple as learning a new hard skill. Critical thinking aptitude is built over years of experience. But with smart manufacturing technology, we can enhance the critical thinking skills of the whole team.

critical thinking manufacturing skill

Computer systems easily understand how a job is accomplished. But it is virtually impossible for them to understand why something is done. This elemental ability is what allows humans to share ideas and think critically based on factors like intent and context.

If we add in the previous skill of communication, we can supercharge the critical thinking skills of your employees. When workers receive the right information at the right time, they gain a better understanding of why actions need to be performed. In turn, this enables them to provide their own critical insight through improvement suggestions and useful data.

For example, when an engineer receives a project from a company, they need to build it with the customer’s intended purpose. They use cyber-physical systems to design the product and the process. Likewise, the assembly operator builds the product by following their work instructions while also watching for process errors and potential improvements.

By giving engineers and operators technology like VKS, people are better prepared to think critically and provide value that technology could not provide on its own.

Learning is an Everyday Process

A willingness to learn new skills is a must-have in the current industry. As technology advances faster than ever, people need to advance with it. Hard skills learned in school no longer last for an entire career.

We could say the same about data retrieval; yesterday’s performance and data don’t tell the complete story about tomorrow. Learning needs to be a daily endeavor.

People that see data as an ongoing method to learn about their operation will be able to enact the greatest level of innovation and problem solving for the industry. By using smart technology that autonomously gathers data in real-time, team leaders learn key knowledge that drives future success.

pro tip

Pro Tip: VKS Pro and Enterprise enable users to learn from key information like KPIs, user feedback, smart form data, and more.


Emotions Play a Key Role

You could be thinking, “what does emotion have to do with manufacturing?”. But I would argue that emotion plays a critical role in how we piece together our critical thinking, communication, and learning skills.

Our understanding of the world and even our reasons for manufacturing different products are backed by our emotions. It helps us prioritize certain projects and goals while also enabling us to understand and decipher all non-verbal communication, environmental context, and customer intent.

Understanding emotion is a skill automated processes are nowhere near figuring out, despite being a key driver of our actions within the industry and beyond. In this way, it is something that companies should not disregard. Rather, it should be seen as a key asset that needs to be fostered and leveraged within people for further growth.

People Enhance Technology & Vice Versa

people and technology

With the growing amount of focus on machines replacing human jobs in the past few years, it's no wonder that people feel uneasy about automation. But do they need to?

Since computers haven't yet taken over every aspect of human life and work, it looks like we humans will need to continue working for a little while longer.

Although automation has some incredible feats under its belt already, it is still far from replacing the unique skills that people can bring to the table. People and businesses will need to continue advancing these manufacturing skills so that the industry grows to be greater than the sum of its parts.

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