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How to obtain the skills needed in a smart factory

As factories continue to evolve with the use of innovative technologies, manufacturers must ensure that their workers are evolving right along with them.

As manufacturers inject their operations with innovative technologies in an effort to transform them into so-called smart factories, a seismic shift in how those factories are staffed has emerged. Put simply, whereas factory workers have historically been hired for the skills they bring with their hands, it is now their brains manufacturers are relying on.

Factory work requires more technical skills than ever before, from coding to mobile application development to managing robots powered by AI. However, experts say these hard skills can be learned, and what forward-thinking manufacturers need are employees who possess higher-level competencies.

Collaboration and communication skills essential to a smart factory

"If I want to have a successful smart factory, I want people who have leadership capability and evangelism capability [and] who are able to solve problems, manipulate data and find answers," said Simon Jacobson, vice president of research at Gartner. "Skills I can teach. It's a matter of changing that conversation to you train skills and you have to hire competencies."

The use of additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing, is a perfect example of this shift. Lars Bruns, software leader at GE Additive, General Electric's additive manufacturing division, said the impact of the technology has been such that collaboration has become more important than ever. Traditional factory jobs such as machine operators, millers and finishers are being phased out as the manufacturing process increasingly requires every employee to understand what those in other roles are doing.

"It's becoming evident that it's important that there be a conversation between design, manufacturing and post-processing engineers," said Bruns.

As a result, GE Additive specifically looks for people with strong collaboration and communication skills and who are comfortable working with new tools. As for helping new hires and existing employees develop their smart manufacturing skill sets, the business -- which GE created a few years ago to champion additive throughout GE and to serve as a consultancy that helps customers adopt and make the most of additive manufacturing -- takes a cross-training approach.

GE Additive has a facility in Cincinnati where every part of the additive manufacturing process is demonstrated under one roof. Built as an octagon to encourage collaboration, the so-called additive center serves as a sort of incubator where new additive technologies are developed and tested, customers are shown what an additive manufacturing floor looks like and employees are given a deep dive into all things additive.

GE Additive also created a 200-person team it calls AddWorks that works closely with customers to help determine which applications and products are best suited to additive and to help build the necessary skill sets within their organizations. Callaway Golf and HRE Wheels are two companies that have made additive manufacturing a critical part of their production environments with help from AddWorks.

Meanwhile, leaving no stone unturned, GE Additive also has an education program through which it's donating additive tools to high schools and universities to help build excitement around the technology. Think of it as a combination business factory of the future.

"The more folks that can think and design and experience additive, the more everyone's going to win," Bruns said.

Right or wrong, manufacturing is an industry that carries the stigma of being behind the times.

Nevertheless, very few businesses have the resources to commit to smart factory technologies at this scale. For many manufacturers, just attracting people with any technical skills can be a daunting challenge. When potential employees are young, the prospects are even bleaker. Right or wrong, manufacturing is an industry that carries the stigma of being behind the times.

John Barcus, vice president of manufacturing at Oracle, pointed out that manufacturers brought some of this on themselves by appearing to be less than loyal to employees. Traditionally, the first people to lose jobs during cutbacks are factory floor workers, and many millennials have seen this happen to their parents.

Add in the fact that manufacturing is perceived as dirty and simply not fun, and the obstacles mount.

"People don't come out of school with data science degrees looking to that industry," Barcus said.

Two options for manufacturers to consider

As a result, Barcus believes manufacturers looking to digitize have been left with two paths. On the hiring front, they need to make manufacturing more appealing. To some degree, popular smart factory technologies such as robotics and IoT have amped up the sexiness factor, but there's still much more work to do on this front.

Meanwhile, for companies who can't build their own comprehensive training centers, training existing employees in new skills is a huge priority. And while training tools such as augmented reality promise to make it easier to teach and learn new skills, perhaps the most important way manufacturers can digitally upscale the skills and competencies on their smart factory floors is to establish a culture of continuous improvement.

Until now, manufacturing has been a pretty rigid business. Systems remained in place for decades, workers stayed employed for entire careers thanks to a single skill and no one wanted to introduce anything that would disrupt the churning out of products.

But by changing the mindset of a factory environment to one that eagerly adopts new tools and collaborative work habits, brings employees along for the ride, and embraces the accompanying discomfort with the uncertainty that comes from constantly evolving, manufacturers can ensure that their staff will evolve right along with them. That flexible approach is certain to work out better than trying to predict what hard skills manufacturers think they'll need for the foreseeable future.

"Manufacturers are kidding themselves if they think they know what jobs will be here and won't be here in 10 years. We don't know," said Gartner's Jacobson. "If you have a plant culture that is already engaged with understanding how what they do impacts the customer experience and impacts the organization's profit, then you're in a very good position already."

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