How Automation is Helping Industry Adapt to Today’s Workforce Reality

July 15, 2021
Though it represents one of the greater job skill challenges for new entrants, technology is increasingly viewed as a key attractor for the next-generation industrial workforce.

From increasing use of automation and starting wages that are considered too low to the lackluster image of industrial work, there’s no shortage of opinions about the factors contributing to the current shortage of skilled workers in the industrial production industries. Confronted with a shortage of available workers, industrial companies are increasingly turning to technology to maintain their operations.

Aaron Crews, director for modernization solutions and consulting at Emerson said the personnel shortage in manufacturing has lasted long enough that organizations are now “hyper-focused on helping existing workers be more efficient and effective. And the key to doing more with fewer personnel is ensuring personnel have clear, contextualized visibility into their processes and equipment no matter where they are.”

He clarified his point by noting that plants don’t need the highest level of expertise all the time, instead they need “smart systems that determine when expert help is needed, and then deliver information in context to experts wherever they are. Today’s workers are mobile, and control systems embracing mobility help personnel be more effective. Organizations expect digital tools to drive DCS (distributed control systems) data from the plant level to the enterprise, where smaller groups of experts can manage entire fleets across the country or across the globe without the expense and delay of travel.”

More continuous processing industry customers are using “advanced and state-based control to capture expert knowledge and encapsulate it in control logic,” said Crews. “As experts retire, the knowledge they have built up over years in the plant can be captured as automated control strategies to ensure the control of critical process variables permanently resides in the control structure and are performed reliably every time.”

Josh Eastburn, director of technical marketing at Opto 22, said they have seen customers use remote access and data acquisition, built on edge computing, to reduce the need for on-site labor by as much as 50%. He cited an example of how Engenuity Inc., an oil and gas industry OEM, is using these technologies to validate pressure testing of blowout preventers and well control equipment.

Technology as a lure

Despite the ability of technology to reduce the number of workers needed in industrial operations, some contend that manufacturing and processing industries’ increasing deployment of modern technologies can also be an important factor in attracting the workforce of the future.

Jesse Hill, process industry manager at Beckhoff Automation, said, “Embracing new technologies is key to providing a pool of talent for the process industries. A generation of engineers with experience in traditional process technologies such as 4-20mA, HART, Foundation Fieldbus, etc., is exiting the workforce. Now, processing facilities need to replace this talent with a younger workforce that is schooled on emerging technologies, which is where their interest lies.” 
Read more about training today's industrial workforce.

He cited Beckhoff’s TwinCAT automation software as an example of this because it “gives engineers the capability to program in the language they are most familiar with or that suits the application best, whether that’s real time code using object-oriented extensions of IEC 61131-3, standard PLC function blocks, or interfacing to computer science standard languages, such as .Net or Python. Also, advanced functionality like analytics, machine learning, and simulation using MatLab/Simulink can be implemented directly in the standard engineering environment and deployed on our scalable industrial PCs.”

The hiring benefits of using technologies the younger workforce is more familiar with is a key realization more companies should be aware of, according to Michael Risse, vice president and chief marketing officer at Seeq (a supplier of industrial analytics software). “We don’t see a labor issue [impacting the available workforce] so much as an enabling employee discussion, or even a demand from younger employees,” he said. “Younger generations expect something better than the 30-year-old tradition of spreadsheets and historians. They are frequently comfortable with coding or scripting and, based on consumer experiences, they expect innovation in their software. Of course, that means they [expect to be able to] work from anywhere and the solutions [they use] must provide collaboration, like Google docs.”
How artificial intelligence is being used to streamline workforce training.One of the benefits of newer technologies is that they can often be used to handle the dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks common to manufacturing that make work in industry so unappealing to many.
Kevin Finnan, Yokogawa industry consultant said, “Our robotics portfolio addresses the dirty and dangerous [aspects of process industry work] by using robots to venture into hazardous industrial areas. As a result, one of our customers in the process of digital transformation is changing the role of process operators [in its plants] to production analysts. This means these workers will transition away from constant attention to their screens to monitor the condition of the process at a given moment. Instead of responding to unplanned events, they will support optimization. Their focus will be on automation performance and solving performance shortcomings.”

Hill added, “The more we can implement these types of new technologies, the better chance we have to recruit and retain this talent in our industry. [In fact], this is an area where I think remote access can help in recruitment. Many in this next generation of engineers may not be as enthusiastic about putting on fire-resistant smocks, steel-toe shoes and hard hats to go to work every day. If much of this engineering and monitoring can be done from comfortable offices, this will lead to higher recruitment of talent into the process industries.”

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