Is There a Technological Solution to the Manufacturing Skills Gap?
Shop floor operator referring to VKS for information while working on a press brake machine. (Image courtesy of Visual Knowledge Share.)
There’s trouble on the horizon for U.S. manufacturing.
According to a 2015 Deloitte study, 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled in the next decade. That should be great news, but a lack of appropriately skilled workers means that 2 million of those jobs could remain unfulfilled.
There have been plenty of proposals for strengthening U.S. manufacturing—some point to the importance of improving American manufacturing technology, while others argue that those technological gains won’t matter without a skilled workforce.
Of course, there is another way to address the looming skills gap in manufacturing and elsewhere. The imminent fourth industrial revolution and its smart factories of the future suggest that the solution may be a technological one.
Can you give us some background on how VKS came about?
Basically, our software was developed about six years ago for a high mix, low volume manufacturing company with about 350 employees between two facilities. They had a very diverse environment—building products for industries ranging from medical to automotive—doing machining, fabricating, welding and assembly.
Seven or eight years ago, this company started wondering how they could improve their quality and productivity. After looking into different software options for capturing and sharing best practices, they found that there wasn’t anything available that would fit the diversity of their operation. That’s when they decided to develop the software themselves.
The starting point involved going on the floor and working with the operators who had been doing these jobs day-in and day-out to figure out how they did it. They took pictures and video to document the process with the experts, and then shared this information with the rest of the workforce. By doing this, the next time the job came through, everyone would be following a standardized best methodology.
The company implemented the software at both facilities, and on average across the facilities they saw a 20 percent increase in productivity. They even had a few select work centers where they saw as much as a 95 percent reduction in internal defects. After seeing these results, the decision was made to assess the market and commercialize VKS.
What are the applications for VKS?
Initially, the focus was on work instructions. The company would identify the best way to do a job, and if people had ideas for a better way to do something there are features in the software that allow them to make suggestions. In its current state, VKS has expanded from purely a software to create and share visual work instructions into a Manufacturing Execution System (MES).
That’s where you start to get quality and productivity features. For example, our software has the ability to create and share digital checklists. So, when the operator’s following the procedure, if they need to do an inspection a form will appear letting them know they need to confirm a particular detail, scan a serial number or input a certain dimension. The software can then validate whether the values they’re inputting are within tolerance before allowing them to proceed to the next step.
The software is also able to monitor productivity performance in real time and integrate with ERP systems and machines and tools. With the latter set of options, you start to get into the idea of Industry 4.0 and smart factories.
For example, the work order may be released from the ERP and sent to VKS along with the expected times, quantities and operations. Then, with VKS, the operator can scan a barcode and begin following the procedure through pictures and videos, with the system prompting them for inspections as they’re working and automatically monitoring their productivity.
We also have the ability to integrate with machines and tools. This feature was originally developed so that the work instructions would automatically move to the next step once the worker performed the operation on the machine, or with a tool. So if you’re inserting rivets, for example, the software can tell you, “Insert a rivet here,” and once you do, it will automatically move the focus on the screen to show where the next rivet should be inserted.
We also recently launched the ability to capture the torque value achieved when inserting screws, so the signal to proceed to the next step is only sent if the proper torque and thread count are met, and the results saved in a report. This guarantees that the operator is performing the actions as per the work instruction and provides 100% traceability for the customer using the software. As customers get to this level, it is really in line with Industry 4.0 where all systems are interconnected and seamlessly exchanging data.
Do you think VKS can address the skills gap in manufacturing?
I think a lot of the growth that we’ve been seeing is because of that. We released a white paper recently that found there’s a roughly 28-percent turnover rate in manufacturing today. This has a big impact itself, but then you add the skills gap on top of that and it really has a drastic effect on manufacturing companies. This is the reason it’s critical that companies are providing detailed information for their operators to be successful within their tasks.
If you look outside of manufacturing, this theme is very present – we have GPS to tell us how to get places, Google and Wikipedia when we need answers to questions, assembly instructions when we buy new things and more. At VKS, our goal is no different: we provide a solution to help companies within the manufacturing sector transfer knowledge and information in an easy, accessible way.
For more information on VKS, visit the Visual Knowledge Share website.