Operations column

Compelling Value:

Bridging the Skills Gap with Smart Glasses

By Brian Ballard

As we move into a new era of manufacturing, some say that technology is reducing the importance of people. In fact, people are more important than ever. Hands-on production workers are the point of integration between data and equipment. And yet, few industrial companies are making investments to empower their people with the skills they need to contribute increased value to the business.

Today, that's a problem. Tomorrow, it will be a crisis. The manufacturing industry is expected to face one of the worst talent crunches in history, as more than 2.7 million of the most senior and experienced workers head toward retirement. Who will replace them? Manufacturing has lagged other industries in recruiting promising young workers; those who enter the industry often do so without the skills and training they need to hit the ground running.

The right technology investments can help industry address important issues of productivity, workplace safety, quality assurance and compliance while also helping employers bridge the skills gap more quickly and at lower cost.

Information in View

Wearables, and in particular, smart glasses, offer compelling value for manufacturers across a number of real-world scenarios. They enable workers to access information directly in their line of sight, using simple gestures or voice commands, while they are performing tasks and handling equipment.

If all you know about this technology is Google Glass, or you're waiting for cutting edge Augmented Reality, think again. Smart glasses can help businesses address the skills gap in multiple dimensions right now, using software and devices that are ready to go today. Here are some examples.

Retaining Organizational Wisdom

Baby boomers continue to retire at the rate of approximately 10,000 per day through the next decade and a half. What does that mean for a real business? At one of our customers’ large supply chain packaging facilities, more than half of the workforce is eligible for retirement in 2020.

When those workers leave, so does their unique expertise, which can be key to the efficient management of the business. These are the practices that no one has bothered to write down, or would think to include in formal training. So how can companies capture this "tribal knowledge" and pass it on to new workers?

Smart glasses offer the ideal solution. The manufacturing team at the packaging facility is deploying wearables to its senior technicians, managers and other seasoned hands-on workers, which lets them record tasks while performing them as usual. When the skilled workers encounter errors or other issues on the job, they simply use voice command to record what they are seeing and then talk through the procedure for troubleshooting.

The company is then digitizing and cataloging these recordings so they can be accessed by other workers wearing smart glasses during on-the-job training. When these workers have questions or are unsure of how to proceed while performing a certain task, they can use voice to request their devices to play the recorded videos, all while keeping both hands free to do their jobs.

Skills for the Evolving Workforce

U.S. manufacturing suffered losses of $45 million in 2012 and 2013 due to unfulfilled positions. Vocational training programs, apprenticeships and recruitment are simply not keeping up with today's demand, much less the demands for advanced skills that will grow as retirements increase.

This is another area where smart glasses can revolutionize industry. Research shows that combining video, audio and kinetic/muscle-memory learning accelerates the ability of people to gain and retain new skills faster, more easily and with greater precision.

One of our customers applied this principle on the production floor of its facility dedicated to the sterilization of medical devices. Here, there is no room for even the smallest of error – people’s lives depend on the correct handling of these devices.

The company is using smart glasses to build documented workflows for different procedures and job tasks, and for performing job hazard analysis. When a new associate comes in and puts on the smart glasses, they can see the different gear that they are required to wear, the process that they need to follow and the steps that they need to take – without skipping a beat. Smart glasses make all this information available to them within their field of vision and completely eliminate the need to refer to a manual. The results? A more proficient workforce, better quality control, and vastly improved workplace safety.

Improving Workflow Efficiency and Collaboration

Using smart glasses on the shop floor can also help companies equip their workforce with critical information to help them do more with less, while also improving Overall Effectiveness Efficiency (OEE). Take Jabil, a global electronic product solutions company, as example.

For every minute a production line is down can mean significant setbacks to customer orders and costs. With customized workflows on smart glasses integrated with its existing system architecture, Jabil’s line managers and machine technicians are able access real-time data and charts on important information such as machine states, state of shift and yield for each line. This enables their workers to track up to three lines effectively in a given shift, as opposed to one or two production lines, previously.

Moreover, if the line workers encounter issues they don’t understand, smart glasses let them call for help immediately. As they stream their view of the situation, they receive instructions directly

from experts across the plant or hundreds of miles away, thereby reducing downtime. With smart glasses, Jabil has been able to drive significant improvement in production line availability and recouped the deployment costs within 2 months.

Upskilling Your Business

The skills gap is a huge challenge for industry, but it's also an opportunity. Manufacturers can apply advances in mobile, wearable technology alongside other investments in data and smart equipment to build more value into their human capital – the people who make their business run – while connecting hands-on workers to the people, processes and information they need to do their best work.

Our customers are doing amazing things today, using technology that fits the needs of industry, builds on their existing systems and maximizes the potential of their workforce. We can't wait to see what they'll do tomorrow.

Brian Ballard is the CEO and co-founder of APX Labs where he is working on the next industrial revolution - using smart glasses to create powerful ways for the workforce to interact with the digital and physical world.



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