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Millennials' technology expectations have been shaped by smartphones, Facebook and digital media -- in other words, by easy and ubiquitous connectivity. It's not surprising, then, that traditional manufacturing systems can seem as retro as waiting for dial-up internet to connect. And that's bad for the manufacturing sector, because its skills gap is looming large.
A joint study by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte Consulting projects a surge of nearly 3.5 million open manufacturing jobs created over the next decade. Some of the empty slots will come by way of retiring baby boomers, while others are related to new positions created as a result of natural business growth, the report found. What the report also predicts: As conditions stand now, 2 million of those jobs will go unfulfilled. In other words, the need for the manufacturing sector to appeal to Millennials -- the generation typically defined as those born between 1981 and 1997 -- is both critical and a very tall order.
Indeed, manufacturing still has a negative image among younger generations, experts say. In a 2015 public perception of manufacturing study, also by The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte, respondents ages 19 to 33 ranked manufacturing as their lowest preference in terms of potential career choices.
Manufacturing's image problem is complex and in, some aspects, based on false assumptions. But one real obstacle is that some manufacturing systems can seem antiquated, and it's an issue that many manufacturers and related organizations are already addressing.
Modern and accessible tech
Swapan Jhavice president go-to-market, PTC
Forward-looking companies and organizations in the manufacturing sector are working to update systems so they better align with the ease and accessibility of user experience so pervasive with personal technology. Traditional manufacturing platforms -- for example, manufacturing execution systems and supply chain applications -- are being redesigned with new mobile interfaces, cloud capabilities and modern-day dashboards to make what has historically been perceived as arcane into something far more friendly and familiar to a tech-savvy audience.
"As Millennials move into the manufacturing environment, there's a certain expectation that the technology they are interacting with will work the same as what they grew up with," said Matt Wells, product general manager for automation software at GE Digital. "The entire generation expects that data will be available to them anytime, anywhere, even outside of the plant. If they need access to information, they don't want to call someone; they want to pull out their phone and see what's going on."
One way to gain traction with Millennials is to provide access to tools they want to use, not simply those required to do their jobs, Wells said. "Millennials want to work in organizations that are reflective of their thought processes and paradigms," he explained. "There is an expectation of having immediacy of information available for whatever they need to do. Providing that can be a competitive tool for attracting new talent as baby boomers retire."
Manufacturing UX on the go
Meeting Millennials' technology expectations will be a key component in the efforts to solve the manufacturing sector's skills gap. User experience -- mobility, in particular -- are table stakes for the new generation accustomed to using their phones for everything, according to Stan Przybylinski, vice president of research with CIMdata, a PLM consultancy. Modern-day manufacturing systems need to be designed with mobile access in mind, and the user interface needs to reflect the different use case, from how information and tools are organized to touchscreen support along with new search capabilities, he said.
"Millennials want visual UIs, with even drag and drop being anachronistic for people who spend most of their time on mobile devices," Przybylinski said. Yet just delivering a simple mobile app doesn't go far enough, he contends. "People tend to think of mobile apps that are simple to use, but in the end, they are simple because they don't do much," he says. "The problems being addressed [by manufacturing] require complex user interaction."
Przybylinski envisions new user interfaces that thematically resemble the physical shop floor, and that offer augmented reality, virtual reality and simulation to bring manufacturing platforms into a fully digital world. The bigger issue, he said, will be how analytics and other key performance indicators are presented to users in a way that fosters investigation of data and resolution of issues once identified.
Technology that enables instant experts
Redesigning manufacturing software in a way that promotes "instant skills" will also be important to Millennials and other incoming generations who expect to get up and running on software with minimal to no training, according to Swapan Jha, vice president go-to-market for the internet of things (IoT) solutions group at PTC. "Whether they're working on the manufacturing floor or as a design engineer, they want information available when they want it on wherever they want it, be it desktop or iPad," Jha said. "They also expect to be able to turn on the solution and use it right out of the box with no training."
Jay Flores, STEM ambassador at Rockwell Automation, couldn't agree more. He recently came across an internet meme that sums up Millennials' technology expectations for professional software: "A user interface is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it's not a good one.
"People expect a lot more intuitive interaction with machines because of touchscreens and the iPhone and iPad era," he added. "They need to be able to understand quickly what it is they need to do."
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