Building a Digital Knowledge Infrastructure

An aging workforce has many manufacturers wondering how to pass on essential knowledge to the next generation of workers. Discover how gamification, global accessibility, and data management may be the industry's answer.

Frank Burger, Engineering Manager at Avanceon
Frank Burger, Engineering Manager at Avanceon

We’ve been hearing for a while about the growing experience gap that manufacturers face, as the longest-tenured operations experts claim their gold pocket watches and head off into the sunset. This is true for engineers, technicians, and operators who represent a trifecta of wisdom that manufacturing companies will be hard pressed to replace.

Many industrial processes and systems have been in place for the better part of two decades, and the experience gained by those involved with the original project is priceless. The same applies, but as a softer echo, with upgrades, expansions, and retrofits that are implemented down the line.

Involvement in those efforts gives insight into the “why” of things that would otherwise be mysterious. Similarly, every plant operator or maintenance technician learns tricks and work-arounds that that you’ll never see in a manual. “When the box tape sensor is malfunctioning, just put the boxes on the conveyor upside-down!” “When we receive raw ingredients from Supplier B, we need to target a lower final pH, even though the lab tests pass!”  

The challenge is passing these pearls of operational wisdom from employee to employee to share the benefits. Fortunately, newer entrants to the workforce tend to be extremely comfortable and familiar not only with technology like social media, but also underlying concepts such as gamification that inject recognition and a bit of fun into everyday tasks.  

A successful approach that Avanceon embraces involves a number of aspects:

  • Learn the needs of the organization. Identify the skill level and job requirements of those we’re trying to help. What are the strengths and weaknesses of existing systems? What information exists and what needs to be sought out?
  • Identify the solution. Technology is often part of, but never is, the entire solution. Adoption is the key hurdle to overcome so we want to captivate the user from the very beginning by showing them this is a system they can’t work without. Carrots are worth much more than sticks. The value to the user should be incredibly obvious. For busy manufacturing professionals, it’s all about effort vs. reward. This is where it pays to think outside the box. The people we’re trying to help already use a dozen different systems from HMIs, to timesheets, to QC data entry. Selecting an approach that fits in seamlessly with everything else going on will go a long way to adoption. Can you combine a few needs (work orders, PM’s, issue escalation) under one umbrella?
  • Seed the system. Nobody wants to be presented with an empty bookcase and told that it’s their new knowledge platform. We can collaborate with their power users or beta team to build out exactly what they need from the jump. But the critical thing is when an average user logs on for the first time, all useful information should be at their fingertips. We want to build an optimistic experience that will allow them to hit the ground running when they log on for the first time.
  • Make it fun and collaborative. Try not to roll your eyes at my usage of the word “fun”. Of course, you want an approach that will be easy for everyone to use, but beyond that, there are many opportunities for gamification; like awarding ‘achievement levels’ and prizes (real or virtual) based on contributions and adoption. A key aspect to this is ensuring it’s not a hassle to contribute. Stay on top of it. Recognize that this fertile field of knowledge will need consistent attention to prune out old information and to provide new content that’s too heavy of a lift for everyday users. You can expect an operator to provide tips on periodic greasing of the new case packer, but you can’t expect them to spend half a shift scanning electrical drawings. This is part of the investment and will be an ongoing effort.

As we implement these programs, one thing becomes clear: this need has always existed, and indeed it’s a large part of why things are in such a critical state right now. But only recently have the two technologies of global accessibility and data management evolved to a point where realistic solutions can be offered without breaking the bank.        

Frank Burger is an Engineering Manager at Avanceon, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Avanceon, visit its profile on the CSIA Industrial Automation Exchange.

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