Training For Emerging Factory Technologies

Training at factories and warehouses is evolving as more companies adopt emerging technologies such as robotics and Internet of Things equipment.

As factories and distribution centers become increasingly automated, the workers who remain will be those who are trained to best troubleshoot when problems arise—and when needed, deliver the extra human touch to enhance the end-customer’s experience.

“This is not your grandfather’s manufacturing plant or warehouse,” says Brian Fleming, executive director of Southern New Hampshire University’s Sandbox CoLABorative in Manchester, NH, the university’s innovation and strategy lab that focuses on future trends in education and work.

The nature of these facilities is changing quickly, largely due to the rapid-scale influx of new and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the Internet of Things (IoT), Fleming says. “This has changed the nature of the work itself, and it also has changed the way in which workers experience their jobs.”

Continual on-the-job training for equipment operators has increased because equipment technology is evolving so rapidly, he notes. Employers have to optimize their human capital as best as possible, which often requires just-in-time training modules.

Those who maintain equipment increasingly are required to have some type of post-secondary training, including learning the “vital soft skills” required to do the job, Fleming says. “When helping front-line workers troubleshoot issues with the equipment, maintenance engineers also need to have good people skills—they need to be able to relate to people in an empathetic way to help solve problems,” he says. “While these skills are innate for many personalities, they also can be taught, particularly within post-secondary training.”

Need for Consistent Training

KMI Learning in Columbus, OH, offers custom content development for distribution centers in safety, productivity, job skills, and task-oriented skills, says Chief Operating Officer Joel Copeland. The company currently is completing a series of modules for workers who need training on robotic “goods-to-person systems” that bring items in the warehouse to pickers, who then package them for delivery.

“To operate these systems, workers need basic computer skills, but sometimes an older worker, such as a 60-yearold who drives a forklift, may have issues,” Copeland says. “The way we approach training is to build online courses that people have to interact with. If they have the computer skills to finish the course, then they have the skills to run the robot.”

A company with multiple distribution centers needs to have training coordinated across all facilities, so they can achieve consistency and quality of orders, he says. “While it’s still good to have some kind of ongoing coaching by a mentor, it’s most effective to feature consistent training via an online system,” Copeland explains. “This also will help to reduce high worker turnover rates in warehouses as employees can get overwhelmed when training is not consistent. The online courses can help them make sense of what’s going on even before they set foot in the warehouse.”

Bryan Jensen, chairman of St. Onge Co., a supply chain strategy and logistics consulting firm based in York, PA, says most companies that buy highly automated equipment execute maintenance contracts with the provider, which minimizes training of in-house workers on how to fix the equipment. “But companies that use such equipment also should make sure they have responsive technicians onsite to both communicate with the manufacturer and handle minor issues immediately, so the company doesn’t have unacceptable downtime periods,” Jensen says.

Warehouses are facing another significant challenge: effectively training seasonal workers for peak seasons, especially in the U.S., he points out. “It’s a challenge to get them trained quickly enough in the short period of time they are needed. There isn’t an easy answer, but many companies try to build up a fleet of repeat seasonal employees so they can get up to speed faster for each season,” Jensen says. “Another strategy is to use highly automated systems to simplify work tasks as much as possible, so the training curve is very short.”

There’s an App for That

Swisslog, a Kuka company based in Newport News, VA, provides automated equipment and robotics to distribution centers seeking machines that are as easy to use as possible, “just like apps on a smartphone—they want all work to be done in five touches or less,” says David Schwebel, head of Business Development. Still, some workers have trepidation because they’re not used to the technology, so training continues to be important.

“Warehouse employees also need to be trained on additional things that entail critical thinking—such as spotting when orders are wrong or applying the finishing touches to hand-written notes that are included in packages thanking repeat customers for their order of specialized products,” Schwebel says. “Workers, when surrounded by digital technology, need to feel empowered to make analog decisions to ‘wow’ consumers.”

Training today also includes the use of mobile apps, via which workers receive push notifications for two-minute training, he says. It’s gamified, such as going from Level 2 to Level 3 to make learning more fun. The training apps also are linked to the warehouse management system, so companies can track how employees score on performance after the training.

“For example, they would get extra bonuses for driving the forklift at a safe speed and operating the equipment safely, and then they would get certified—all tracked from the app on the phone,” Schwebel says. “This is where performance, education, safety, and procedures are all tied into one profitable ecosystem.”

Translating Data into Action

Ed Romaine, vice president of Business Development at SensorThink & Tompkins International in Doylestown, PA, says workers within facilities that have IoT-based systems increasingly will be trained “to be proactive rather than reactive.” This is made possible with the smart equipment’s wireless connections to warehouse management systems.

“By reviewing dashboards and reports, operators will be monitoring their facility’s operational performance,” Romaine says. “Because IoT allows for predictive analytics, problems or issues can be visible prior to events. This will allow them to proactively act and respond, keeping operations performance at optimal levels.”

For example, workers now can determine when critical equipment will need servicing prior to a breakdown, he says. By seeing real-time usage and key performance indicators on each piece of equipment, operators should be trained on when to order repairs.

“Training should focus on having the data in a clear and visible fashion within the dashboards, which allow monitoring for critical issues,” Romaine says. “This then likely requires the trained operator to dig deeper into his or her dashboard and reports for more detailed data to help determine the next steps. The training should require analytics and a holistic knowledge of the facility, its operations, and critical components and business processes.”

The training required for equipment maintenance also will continue to evolve, as equipment becomes “smarter” and IoT becomes more prevalent, he says. “In years past, equipment maintenance was more about feeling and intuitively knowing how the equipment was running—more art than science,” Romaine explains. “Today, equipment is able to display and ‘phone home’ to manufacturers in order to do self-evaluations and performance updates. However, there is still the need for trained personnel to take diagnostic information and translate it into action.”

Working with Communities

As the modern factory and distribution center becomes more automated, companies will need to work with their communities to develop specialized educational programs to fill the growing skills gap, says Christian Dow, president of Panther Industries Inc. in Highlands Ranch, CO. There is a growing need for skilled factory and warehouse employees in areas such as software programming, PLC programming, motion control, pneumatics, electrical wiring, and system troubleshooting. “Even though these smarter interconnected systems will eliminate many manual processes, the talent needed to install, operate, and maintain them will continually grow,” Dow says.

Much of this need will be addressed by companies investing in employee certifications from the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies and other organizations, including those providing testing and competencies in areas such as “mechatronics” that address these needs, he says.

Moreover, higher education facilities such as Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, CO, and Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL, currently are developing mechatronics programs to help meet these industry challenges. Panther Industries currently is working with Arapahoe Community College and nearby STEM School Highlands Ranch within IBM’s Pathways in Technology, or P-Tech program, Dow says. The program enables high school students to continue at STEM for two additional years taking college-level classes, and then graduate with both a high school diploma and an Associate’s degree. The Highlands Ranch program is funded by the state of Colorado and is free to the students; other P-Tech programs are being offered in states across the country.

“Our local program is focused on mechatronics and factory automation, but organizations can partner with community schools to create a program in any technical field,” Dow says. “Companies with a significant presence in Colorado such as Century Link and IBM have made this program a significant strategy to solve their skilled workforce needs.”