Dawn of the Digital Natives

Tricks and tools from automation suppliers help manufacturers train the young, digitally savvy, next-generation workforce.

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The Millennial movement is underway. As of this year, this group of young adults—also known as Gen Y and defined by researchers as people born between 1980 and early 2000s—will represent a large part of the U.S. workforce.

Perhaps that’s good news, as the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics has indicated that more than 10,000 workers from the Baby Boomer generation are reaching retirement age daily. The bad news, however, is that when the Boomers retire, they take decades of intellectual property with them. In manufacturing, this could set productivity back substantially. Whether it’s a process engineer, an operator in the plant, or a field technician, there is a wealth of knowledge accumulated from years of experience that can’t be easily passed down to the new kid.

As a result, every manufacturer in every industry has been preparing for an impending employee skills gap. The industry as a whole is focused on working with educational institutions to create better science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs, as well as finding ways to attract young minds to a career in manufacturing. Once a young Millennial arrives on the job, there’s the challenge of getting them up to speed quickly—especially in sophisticated operations where there could also be safety issues.

“There is a certain component of tribal knowledge that is hard to transfer, and the new technology that has been introduced in the last 10 years is accelerating the speed of change in the industrial environment,” says Gail Norris, director of technical learning services at Siemens Industry. Throw into the mix the fact that Gen Y learns in a different way than Boomers, and it adds yet another obstacle into the mix, she says.

Indeed, Millennials are “digital natives” who grew up with technology and have never had to adapt to gaming, hashtags and the social media language, as older generations have. They collaborate, communicate and connect electronically. And they expect to learn that way, too.

To help manufacturers bridge the skills gap, automation vendors are delivering tools that will accelerate workforce development for those young operators and technicians in the field. From knowledge and workflow management to mobile apps and the strategic use of video, vendors are delivering products that will enhance training, boost overall competency, and increase productivity and safety for people in the plant.

The push for savvy information-delivery tools is threefold. First, the arrival of Gen Y. Second, the rapid growth in developing countries, such as China and India, where capital to invest in new production machinery often outpaces the knowledge of the people operating the equipment. And third, the notion of having experts travel out to remote locations to diagnose and fix instrumentation is cost-prohibitive these days. As a result, operators in the field must have a wider range of knowledge and experience.

It’s a new era in workforce development.

“The term competency management has moved into our vernacular,” says John Roffel, product director of Operator Competency Advanced Solutions at Honeywell Process Solutions. “We have to train people locally in a way that is efficient and repeatable.”

Knowledge mining

Alliance Coal is a diversified coal producer that operates 11 mining complexes. Safety, of course, is key, which is why the company has built an underground network for tracking people and equipment in the mines. Deploying and maintaining a network infrastructure typically falls to the IT team. But that can’t always be the case—especially when the network is embedded in the earth.

According to Jeremy Patches, former director of technology at the coal company, there are thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable deployed in coal mines. “The networks have to be maintained, and not by people who are trained engineers,” he says, noting it is the coal miners, not the IT specialists who are doing much of the work. “They are hired as coal miners, become certified electricians, and that translates into becoming a network admin.”

Finding ways to transfer IT knowledge to miners has been done through tutorials and hands-on training, but the company is always looking for innovative ways to expedite the process. Right now, the company works with its network provider to find new ways to transfer knowledge.

But the automation suppliers, too, are delivering products and services geared specifically toward workforce development. In February, Honeywell Process Solutions announced its new UniSim Competency Suite, designed to help prepare console and field operators for on-the-job experiences by creating a realistic environment during training. The suite includes five new technologies: UniSim Operations for dynamic plant simulation; a customized competency model called UniSim Curriculum; UniSim Tutor, which provides a repository to capture domain knowledge and experiences; UniSim Field View, an interactive, realistic view for field operators; and UniSim 3D Connect, which integrates UniSim Operations with a 3D environment.

The Field View 2D technology is designed as a training tool to establish field orientation, procedural awareness, and readiness under normal and abnormal situations by linking real high-resolution pictures from the plant to simulation software to increase an operator’s understanding of the plant topology and field orientation.

Individuals access the images of infrastructure and instruments while at a workstation, providing them with an education at the office of what they will encounter in the field. In addition, they can tap into UniSim Tutor, a game-like tool for capturing knowledge, assessing skill, and propagating information to co-workers. The underlying principle of Tutor is that an operator’s response to a deviation from the normal state in the plant is based on the cause and effect of relationships that exist on a plant and the individual’s ability to detect, diagnose and make a correction to the equipment. The tool can be customized to any plant situation and can capture the experience of decades in a simple, scalable format. As individuals interact with the “game,” the software is providing a score based on operator competency.

Similarly, Siemens has been focusing on how to help its customers capture tribal knowledge and effectively pass it on to the next generation of workers, especially as technology is changing every day. It starts with an assessment tool that maps out job roles and defined competency levels. From there, Siemens generates a report that suggests the appropriate learning tools to close the skills gap.

In a classroom, Siemens can provide plant simulations and virtual tools to emulate physical devices, which can be easily absorbed. But what happens when the employee is fixing something in the field and forgets what he learned? Then he can stream a Siemens Online Rapid Refresher video to a smartphone or an iPad to get a short tutorial on what to do.

“The focus is on how to better impact learning,” says Irving Brown, Siemens’ innovations development manager. Tapping into YouTube is second nature to a 20-something, as is saving the galaxy in a game of Halo. So videos and virtual reality are the perfect way to relay information. “We’ve worked hard to develop virtual tools to emulate physical devices, and because the younger crowd is used to gaming, they absorb the information more readily.”

Gen Y is also very comfortable with mobile devices. Arm them with an iPhone and a GoPro and they are not only creative, but also constructive.

Virtual is the new reality

Digital connectivity comes in many forms. When a technician goes out to an oil pipeline, for example, with a tablet and a web camera attached to the front of his helmet, he can be streaming video back to experts in the operations center who can then provide instructions—via tablet or smartphone—on how to fix the instrumentation. Or the technician could be walking around, taking readings, gathering analytics, and providing a real-time view of what’s happening in the field.

“This is not proprietary by any stretch, but it is a new and different kind of practice for troubleshooting problems,” says Bob Lenich, Syncade business director at Emerson Process Management. Syncade, an asset management suite, builds a library of asset data collected from a facility that can be used during troubleshooting. It also includes an electronic procedure engine that provides instructions—walking an individual through the work processes. “The big thing happening in maintenance is around asset and reliability management, and making sure a person in the field has a lot of information and connections to remotely access the experts.”

What’s interesting is that, even though Millennials would often rather text than talk, there is a human nature element that can’t be ignored when establishing a healthy training environment. Though engineers and operators might not be hanging out together at the watercooler, they do need to interact one-on-one to establish a common bond.

It is important to create a culture in which the experts and the field force are equals—as they are, in a sense, sharing a job. At Alliance Coal, for example, after training coal miners in the classroom, networking experts are sent into the mines to show the miners how the book knowledge relates to what they touch every day. This, Patches says, was the great equalizer and created mutual respect.

“Our IT folks now have an appreciation for the dynamic environment we are dealing with and they appreciate thattaking care of a network is not the coal miner’s job,” Patches says. “This leveled the playing field, allowed relationships to develop on both sides, and the process was focused on how to create problem-solving skills within this group. Now, after months of communication back and forth and research on the underground network, we’ve changed the topology of the network to make it easier for the operations folks.”

Let’s make life easy

There’s some sophisticated technology and machinery that make up a manufacturing environment. To avoid downtime and ensure the safety of the people working there, it’s important to establish best practices. Schneider Electric’s Wonderware IntelaTrac does just that. A mobile workforce and decision support system, IntelaTrac can run on a tablet or ruggedized device and delivers dynamic procedures that drive the processes defined by the organization.

Designed to enable workflow and general task management required to achieve reliable operations, IntelaTrac allows on-site operators to input information and receive support at any location—without the need of a physical connection.

“We believe the frontline workforce should have the opportunity to improve plant reliability and safety because they know what’s going on,” says Kim Custeau, Schneider Electric’s director of asset management solutions. “The tools we provide not only make life easier, but they mitigate the impact of turnover or an aging workforce.”

ABB’s ServicePro management system, a software program equipped with libraries of ABB equipment and associated factory and field developed preventive routines, is focused on safety. Available on a PC or iOS mobile device, the software allows the user to identify, classify and prioritize issues for immediate problem-solving. “This means an operator doesn’t need long years of experience or training to be able to troubleshoot common equipment or process issues,” says Dave Biros, ABB’s global product marketing manager for process automation.

The Millennials don’t have long years of experience, obviously. And some reports suggest they have a short attention span—jumping from job to job if it is not fulfilling and they don’t feel like they are growing their skillset or making a valuable contribution to the company. The tools today are just a part of the solution. Companies must also change the culture to accommodate the value system of this next generation.

“We believe companies will find it easier to attract, keep and retain workers by investing in more high-tech ways to do their jobs faster with less stress and more enjoyment,” Biros says. “Arm them with cool, easy-to-use tools that help them successfully do their jobs within their assigned shifts, and avoid emergency callouts and the risk of employee burnout.”

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