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Smart factory may hinge on identifying needed skills

One expert says flexibility is more important than specific skills. But tell that to the manufacturer that needed a full stack developer and Oracle database architect.

Technologies such as AI, the internet of things and data analytics are transforming how people manage their day-to-day affairs, turning their cars into autonomous rolling extensions of living rooms and enabling them to diagnose diseases faster and with more accuracy than ever before. They're even revolutionizing warfare.

But as much as these innovations are pushing society forward on so many fronts, perhaps no industry has more potential to be transformed by these technologies than manufacturing. If there were any remaining doubts that factories have been headed for an extensive rethinking, an exhaustive 2017 report on the so-called smart factory from Capgemini doused them.

The report predicted that smart factories could add as much as $1.5 trillion to the global economy by 2022, with 76% of manufacturers claiming they either already had smart factory initiatives in place or were formulating them.

Where manufacturers run into great difficulty on this journey is not knowing how to plan for the long term in such a fast-changing environment. Considering the substantial investments that manufacturing systems represent, long-term value is highly coveted, yet completely elusive, which renders big decisions all the more difficult to make.

"It's absolutely ludicrous to think about what work will look like in 10 years in the factory," said Simon Jacobson, a vice president at Gartner. "We don't know what's going to be happening in five years. And yet so many decisions are being made and tradeoffs are being considered."

Who will run the smart factory?

Some of the most important decisions revolve around the evolving skill set modern factories require. The days of turning a high school degree into a job installing bolts on cars are a thing of the past.

Today's factory workers need to possess the digital skills to work with all the data that these new technologies are putting in their hands. That means being able to use analytics software, and maybe even being able to provision supercomputing resources or have some familiarity with advanced concepts such as deep learning. They also increasingly must have the ability to collaborate with the physical and virtual robots that are becoming more prevalent in manufacturing settings.

But, much of the time, manufacturers aren't recruiting these skills, instead opting to teach them to existing employees and hire new workers who bring competencies such as leadership, evangelism capabilities or problem-solving prowess.

For many manufacturers, this tendency to look toward retraining rather than hiring is borne of a simple reality: It's not easy to attract young tech minds into an industry they consider antiquated. Not that they're not trying.

"We have to market ourselves well because we're not the typical kind of place that people with those skills want to come and work [for]," said Scott Rogers, technical director at Noble Plastics, a small manufacturer of custom-molded products based in Coteau, La.

Rogers believes one of the main challenges is a lack of cohesion between the technology and manufacturing sectors. Vendors at the tech events he attends lack a full grasp of a manufacturers' needs, while people in manufacturing struggle to understand their own technology needs.

To wit, Rogers has discovered that as mobile applications become more important to Noble's factory operations, the company needs the ability to write code to connect those apps to the systems that manage the factory data. But because the company has always relied on outsourced IT, there was organizational resistance to acknowledging the need for that skill. Recruiting for tech skills is simply not a core competency in manufacturing, and it can be a tough sell.

"Those are things I've never had to hire people for, and I'd venture to say that very few people in manufacturing have had to do that," Rogers said. "I have to attract them and convince them that what they're going to be doing is fun and exciting."

To illustrate the value of acquiring the necessary tech skills, Rogers said that when Noble started using Oracle's IoT cloud, the vendor offered to provide the needed expertise to work with database architectures. But Noble soon found that it needed in-house experience to get the most from the technology. Bringing in someone with that capability has tripled the company's effectiveness using the system.

Similarly, Rogers said Noble has adopted so many new technologies on its way to establishing its smart factory that it recently realized it needed a full stack developer, which was a term no one in the company was even familiar with. Yet, the company now faces the daunting task of finding someone with a skill set it previously didn't even know existed.

Worker flexibility may be more valuable

Thomas Kurfess, professor and distinguished chair at the Georgia Institute of Technology, argues that acquiring technology skills isn't as important to manufacturers looking to establish smart factories as hiring workers who have flexibility.

Kurfess noted that machines in manufacturing environments have typically remained unchanged for up to 30 years, allowing employees to get very comfortable with repetitive tasks. But as factory workers increasingly rely on software interfaces that are easily changed to better collect and package data, adaptability will become more important than ever, he said.

One fear of the increasingly automated nature of factories is that some jobs will be rendered obsolete while others are redefined, eventually pushing manufacturing toward a completely autonomous future. The good news, Kurfess said, is that despite all of the excitement about automation, humans figure to remain important to factories for the foreseeable future. The simple truth is that people are just much better at making decisions that don't match an algorithm.

"The lights-out factory is a great concept, but people are just too good at what they do," Kurfess said.

The thing to remember, according to Rogers, is that, ultimately, the smart factory of the future isn't about smart manufacturing, per se. More to the point, it's about serving customers more effectively.

"What we care about is that we can produce the products we intend to on a schedule with the intended quality," he said.

Now that sounds like smart manufacturing.

This was last published in January 2019

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