Learning and upskilling in a virtual and safe environment

As the manufacturing industry faces the future with an ageing workforce, immersive technology can help bridge the knowledge gap
Upskilling in a safe virtual environment

The factory floor has been undergoing a transformation over the last few years. Robotic arms assemble components while above them cameras are scanning the components in real time for any defects. Any faulty component is then rejected by the assembly line and the human workers in the office are alerted to the problem. They then analyse the situation and make any necessary tweaks to the design. 

In the future, the internet of things (IoT), combined with artificial intelligence and machine learning, will help manufacturing systems to become even more intelligent and think for themselves. 

As exciting as this may sound, manufacturers won’t be able to leverage IoT if they don’t have employees with the right skills. And hiring the right people can be a challenge in itself. 

Transferring knowledge is a challenge

The problem the manufacturing sector faces is that there’s a knowledge gap. The sector has an ageing workforce and there are worries that the older generation will leave the sector without passing on their knowledge to the next generation of incoming workers. 

A report published by the National Association of Manufacturers in 2019 found that a quarter of the US manufacturing workforce were 55 or older. Of the firms surveyed, 97% conceded they were concerned about the ageing workforce issue and 49% were very concerned about it.

By transporting people to an alternate reality, one where they’re enveloped and more engaged, immersive training can replicate dangerous and expensive scenarios and improve soft skills

At the same time, the promotion of automation in factories means the future manufacturing workforces will need to be adept at dealing with technologies and performing highly analytical tasks involving data. 

PwC’s Annual Manufacturing Report 2020 shows 89% of UK manufacturers are aware that the next generation of employees will need to be even more skilled than the one before to operate efficiently. Though the shift away from manual skills to technical ones will be gradual, 86% of UK manufacturers surveyed said they understood the need for life-long learning in the workplace and had a policy in place for upskilling and retraining workforces. 

Immersive learning to bridge the knowledge gap

Another finding from the PwC report is that the majority (59%) of UK manufacturers don’t believe the education system is doing enough to prepare the future generation of workers. Outdated and obsolete software is sometimes to blame as it’s often all that schools and colleges can afford, according to the report. 

Eight out of 10 respondents agreed that it was up to the manufacturing sector itself to actively engage those in education and make them aware of the career opportunities. Manufacturers should even be considering partnering with local colleges to create independent training centres to nurture talent and equip them with the right digital skills. 

One way manufacturers can bridge the knowledge gap and train workforces and teach them new skills is through immersive technology: augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). PwC research found that people who train in VR are more likely to retain information; they would be four times more focused than if they were trained through e-learning tools. 

“Immersive technology can be a powerful tool that increases the retention of what is learnt through memorable and meaningful learning experiences. By physically ‘doing’, and not merely observing, at a multisensory level, more information can be retained for longer periods of time,” says Emily Savage, head of immersive and creative partnerships at Digital Catapult, the UK’s leading advanced technology innovation centre.

An example of immersive technology in action is Rolls-Royce’s BR275 aircraft engine. Aviation customers are currently being invited to a VR-based course, following the completion of which they’ll be able to service BR275 engines and carry out non-routine maintenance. Though not designed to replace in-person, practical training completely, VR training enables aircraft manufacturers to design, test and maintain engines; new recruits can learn and practise in a virtual and safe environment. 

“By transporting people to an alternate reality, where they’re enveloped and more engaged, immersive training can replicate dangerous and expensive scenarios and improve soft skills. This makes it a particularly useful tool for sectors involving hands-on, practical work and the operation of industrial machinery, such as in manufacturing and engineering,” says Savage. 

Another advantage of immersive technology is that it’s relatively easy to set up. All users require is a smart headset or pair of smart glasses and a reliable broadband connection; there’s no complicated integration involved.

Protecting skills is just as important

As technology advances in the years ahead, manufacturers will not only need to upskill workforces to be digital ready, but they’ll also need to protect skills.

The Materials Processing Institute in Middlesbrough is currently working with a global authority on industrial IoT to understand the potential of implementing AR at its steel production research plant on Teesside. It’s expected that AR will help workers to make more informed decisions as they move around the facility and troubleshoot issues in real time.

The idea is for AR to be used to pass on knowledge. For instance, older, more experienced workers will film tasks and leave instructions in the virtual world, which new starters or less experienced workers will be able to access when wearing AR glasses. 

Chris Oswin, group manager of digital technologies at the Materials Processing Institute, says that without taking steps to protect skills, “so much knowledge in the [steel] industry is at risk of being lost”.

Oswin goes on to explain that AR has the potential to help build a library of virtual resources and experiences that could be used to retain and protect skills for generations to come. 

Ultimately, continuously preserving digital skills and future-proofing talent will be crucial if manufacturers want to harness the potential of IoT and not be left behind in the digital revolution.