Educating the Industry 4.0 Workforce

Educating the Industry 4.0 Workforce.

Employees at the Cummins Inc. Jamestown Engine Plant in New York assemble a diesel engine

Published May 31, 2017 This content is archived.

We are now entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution, consisting of a highly intelligent, interactive and efficient automated manufacturing ecosystem that integrates product design, production and logistics.

The era of Industry 4.0 has arrived, whether you’re ready or not.

Our rapidly-evolving world – with exploding improvements in information technology, material sciences, production technologies and supply chain strategies – is changing the way products are traditionally developed. This is not a trend that will fade into the background, and it’s not lost on customers.

They are insisting on better features, increased customization, and higher quality and performance, all at a competitive price. The process of taking an idea through initial design, making a prototype, testing it, redesigning problem areas, and repeating test and design until achieving satisfaction is being discarded. The replacement is a much quicker, virtually based method dependent on a web of innovative digital technologies that coalesce to create a “smart factory.”

What does Industry 4.0 mean for manufacturers? More specifically, what is its impact on the workforce, and how do we need to adapt education to ensure that manufacturers – especially small and mid-sized ones – are not left in the dust because of an insufficiently skilled employee base?

At the University at Buffalo (UB), we have contemplated these questions in earnest over the past year. We are placing greater emphasis on our institution’s role and are working with the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) of Chicago in pursuit of helping bridge the gaps that endanger our country’s march toward a true manufacturing resurgence.

Join us as we dive into the effects of Industry 4.0 on the workforce and working environments, the skills integral to its realization, how we as a university are supporting industry, and what needs to be done on a broader scale to prepare the workforce.

Industry 4.0: A Definition

Comprehending the implications of this disruptive transformation begins with an understanding of what Industry 4.0 entails and its place in history.

The latter part of the 18th century witnessed the rise of the First Industrial Revolution: a transition from manual to mechanical production, enabled by harnessing water and steam power. Next came the Second Industrial Revolution at the start of the 20th century, ushering in mass production with practices such as the assembly line, followed by the Third Industrial Revolution of the 1950s to 1970s that introduced digital electronics.

We are now entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution, consisting of a highly intelligent, interactive and efficient automated manufacturing ecosystem that integrates product design, production and logistics. The shift marries cyber capabilities with physical systems to form the foundation of digital manufacturing.

It involves the fusion of an array of concepts and technologies – advanced robotics and artificial intelligence, the digital thread and digital twin, and the Internet of Things, to name a few. Inter-connected technologies are improving the product lifecycle through quicker and more accurate sharing of information across all stages, among internal functions, suppliers and customers.

The new era’s roots were planted in 2011, when Henning Kagermann of the German National Academy of Science and Engineering (Acatech) coined the term Industrie 4.0 in reference to a proposed initiative of the German government. Leading German manufacturers have since embraced fourth revolution practices to become pioneers in digital and automated manufacturing. While companies such as Siemens and GE are busy implementing a digitized landscape, a large portion of U.S. industrial companies are in the early stages of climbing aboard.

A Changing Work Environment

Factories of the Third Industrial Revolution generally function like so: Employees are part of a blended workforce, where emphasis is placed on manufacturing skills and training may be provided to some in continual quality improvement or the operation of multiple machining centers. The open-loop perspective is pervasive, where operators are focused on their machine and processing materials to generate output, and have few or no opportunities to voice input that may have a positive impact on the end product.

The inherent nature of digitizing operations is throwing away such traditional norms. Envision the workplace of tomorrow, as described by Fay Cook of the National Science Foundation.

“It will be a collaboration among humans and machines and cyberspace. Humans, working with smart technologies that can identify our needs, synthesize and analyze lots of data, and then respond appropriately to improve manufacturing, provide services, and enable teamwork,” Cook said to a Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable gathering in October 2016. The event was hosted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and focused on implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“It might be an actual physical space,” she continued, “or it might be a virtual workplace in which we are all interacting wirelessly from remote locations.”

Production workers will operate advanced machines in an environment characterized by mass customization, a high mix of products, and smaller batch sizes. Such massive operational alterations paired with advanced technologies hinge on a workforce that is highly engaged in creation of the product. From invention to disposal, every employee will need to understand how his or her actions impact design, manufacturing and logistics.

Silos of knowledge, observation, and data will be broken down. Employees will be empowered to have a positive impact on their co-workers, both upstream and downstream of their work, leading to higher quality products and reduced production costs. This “digital thread” of data and information extending across all stages of a product’s lifecycle will enable companies to make smarter and more efficient business decisions.

Michael Fornasiero is program manager of Workforce Development at DMDII, a public-private partnership transforming American manufacturing via the digital revolution that is part of the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation institutes known as Manufacturing USA. He explained that this concept of developing cross-technical domain experience will lead to the breaking apart of silos within an organization. For example, “to be a truly impactful designer within an organization, you have to have a bit more understanding of what’s going on across the hall, in the shop, and with the customer.”

Rather than focusing attention on just a few functions, employees will need to embrace a hyperconnected network of manufacturing operations and understand the life cycle of the products they are working on.

The Roles and Skills of Digital Manufacturing

Maintaining integrated digitized operations, let alone devising the systems and protocols that make them possible, cannot occur if roles remain stagnant.

While there may be minimal impact for some – such as tool and die makers, as well as those who inspect highly critical items that can’t be handled by digital means – new technologies will support their work and enhance their capabilities.  For other roles, the responsibilities, skills, and interactions within the workplace may change. Drafters, CNC programmers, machinists, document control specialists, and testers performing visual and manual inspections may require new or expanded skill sets to better integrate their work into the digital thread and take advantage of new data sets surrounding the products being made.

Technology advances in the manufacturing environment are causing heavier dependency on technicians who install, program, operate and troubleshoot devices such as robots, automated systems and additive manufacturing machines. New job functions will also arise with emerging processes and technologies.

In an effort to align workers, employers and educators, a project was undertaken to determine roles and associated skills that are integral to Industry 4.0. The initiative was a partnership between DMDII and the Right Management division of workforce solutions provider ManpowerGroup. Input was provided by top U.S. manufacturing firms, small businesses, technology startups, research universities and technical colleges.

The team identified over 160 roles – from factory floor workers to executives – that engage and support digital manufacturing and design technologies and business practices across an enterprise.  The initial list was narrowed to 20, selected for the first round of “Success Profile” development. The profiles summarize the impact, outcomes, business cases, responsibilities, competencies, experiences and additional background that captures a sense of how a worker can be successful in that job role.

The first set of Success Profile roles stretch across various disciplines found within an organization. At first glance, a few may appear to not directly relate to technology at all. For example, project participants expressed concerns about managing culture and technology change since the nature of some work will become vastly different or involve changes across teams and groups. Hence, a role focused on organizational change management strategy made the list.

The 20 roles received scrupulous attention through a profile-building exercise that incorporated shaping the overall scope of each role, integral technical competencies and key performance indicators with input from industry and academic experts. Results of the project, released in August 2017, are detailed in the Digital Workforce Succession in Manufacturing report.

Industry 4.0 insiders, including those involved in the DMDII-Right Management taxonomy project, acknowledge a broad range of roles will require competency in data interpretation, integration, and advanced manufacturing technologies and systems. Smart sensors embedded in technologies will generate copious amounts of process and machine data that depend on people who can analyze insights to make production improvements. Workers with skills in existing manufacturing technologies will be interacting more with workers who build data connectivity throughout an organization, and those who find new ways to take advantage of greater levels of employee connectivity throughout a product’s lifecycle will excel.

There also will be a need for employees versed in:

  • Modeling and simulation
  • Operating intelligent machines that use self-aware manufacturing hardware
  • Advanced analytics
  • Cyber-physical system security
  • Management and predictive modeling in supply chain networks

While technical skills are paramount in fully realizing the benefits of digital manufacturing, the soft skills that underpin teamwork and collaboration should not be ignored. Factory floor employees, in particular, are increasingly becoming members of integrated teams, requiring them to interact more with each other, managers and engineers.

And perhaps the most important skill is possessing “learnability,” the lifelong willingness to learn new skills.

“A portion of these skills will be changing on a rapid basis,” said Lory Antonucci, senior talent management consultant at Right Management. “Some of the tools we are looking at now may be different in the next three to five years.”

A Shrinking Workforce

Identifying skills of the future workforce comprises one part of supporting Industry 4.0. Finding the people who possess those skills is the true challenge. It’s no secret that industrial companies are fishing in a small pool when looking to fill new advanced manufacturing positions with qualified workers, while concurrently struggling to replace retiring employees.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) estimates that 600,000 manufacturing jobs are unfilled in the United States because of a lack of high-tech manufacturing skills among job seekers. Most openings are for production workers with extensive training and knowledge of computer-based technologies. Manufacturing technologies such as automated process control systems and robotics will only become more complex, commanding higher levels of technical adeptness and threatening a greater widening of the skills gap.

Exacerbating the situation are the obstacles in attracting a new generation. As manufacturing positions have declined nationally over recent decades, society has steered us toward other sectors and careers that are perceived to be more stable and lucrative. Many younger workers and students have misconceptions that factories are grimy and outdated places rife with low-skill jobs, and are unaware of the opportunities that abound.

Relying upon current skills found in the workforce is troubling as well. A 2015 report by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute highlighted serious skill deficiencies. Seventy-percent of executives surveyed reported their employees do not possess sufficient technology and computer skills. Other deficiencies documented were: 69 percent feel problem-solving skills are lacking, 67 percent believe there are inadequacies in basic technical training, and 60 percent reported math skills are not up to par.

Together, these factors are sending alarms as employers endeavor to keep pace with 21st century demands. How will more than 98 percent of products be developed digitally by 2020, as predicted by the Society of Automotive Engineers?

Education on a variety of fronts must be enacted if we are to reverse this tide. Pumping resources into research and development are necessary for advancing manufacturing capabilities, but technologies will be ineffective without proper investment of an ample, qualified workforce to operate them.

One University’s Educational Initiatives

Located in Western New York, the University at Buffalo is proud of its reputation as being a leader in advanced manufacturing and design. That’s why we are conducting a thorough self-examination in light of Industry 4.0 and how we serve multiple populations.

New technologies and fast-moving industry changes are pushing us to rethink how we teach design, materials and manufacturing courses. Our curriculum is adapting to reflect manufacturing’s move to a hybrid model of operations: part traditional technologies, and part automation and advanced techniques. Digital manufacturing is also influencing our faculty hiring processes and strategic research initiatives.

The university elevated its commitment to educating future manufacturing leaders and being agile to workplace needs by launching an interdisciplinary “Community of Excellence” in spring 2015 called Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies (SMART). In addition to educational pursuits, the SMART Community of Excellence aims to develop the next generation of manufacturing technologies and processes by integrating cutting-edge research in engineering, architecture and business.

The drive to increase advanced manufacturing competency has resulted in new programs that incorporate applied knowledge relevant to a wide range of industrial environments. A manufacturing minor for undergraduates premieres in fall 2017, as does a graduate certificate in advanced manufacturing featuring emerging design, manufacturing paradigms and fundamental principles of production. Additional certificates in robotics and product development are also being created.

Other academic initiatives include:

  • An automation lab called the SMART Sandbox, which will be outfitted with a diverse set of automation tools, robotic manipulators, conveyor systems and more, will serve as an experiential playground for tinkering in operations such as inventory control, assembly, and pre-processing and post-processing
  • A new position, a Professor of Practice, will split time between guiding students and teaching courses at UB, and implementing advanced manufacturing technologies in industry at Buffalo Manufacturing Works, a groundbreaking collaboration between leading industry, research and academic partners
  • Students from the school’s eight engineering departments are placed in experiential learning opportunities with corporate partners, where they are faced with interdisciplinary design challenges and use data to develop innovative solutions

In addition, we recognize the importance of building interest in STEM careers among youngsters before they set foot on a college campus. UB is part of a nation-wide chorus that calls for giving more prominence to engineering in K-12 curriculum, and is immersed in a number of regional outreach efforts.

Activities include educating elementary teachers in the differences between scientists and engineers, engaging elementary students in hands-on STEM experiments, and introducing high school students to the innovative design and manufacturing of systems, products, and buildings. A design camp pilot has emerged through a new partnership with Northrop Grumman, with the long-term vision of expanding its impact to influence the education of future teachers.

UB also strongly believes in reaching audiences beyond elementary, secondary and post-secondary schools. Production workers in the industry, business owners and those contemplating career changes equally need to discover the technologies of tomorrow.

UB’s Center for Industrial Effectiveness (TCIE) has trained professionals in methods to improve their performance and company operations for nearly three decades, and has built relationships with a large portion of manufacturers in Western New York. This experience was influential in TCIE leading the development of a 10-part series of introductory “101” massive open online courses (MOOCs) that delve into the digital manufacturing and design paradigm.  The courses are a result of a competitive project call endorsed by DMDII’s Workforce Development Advisory Committee. UB became a Tier 1 member of DMDII in summer 2015, becoming involved in workforce development efforts as well as research projects.

The Digital Manufacturing and Design Technology specialization began rolling out in January 2017 on the Coursera platform. The curriculum was designed with input from UB faculty and industry partners that include Siemens PLM, Lockheed Martin, SME, the Association for Manufacturing Technology, Moog Inc. and Buffalo Manufacturing Works.

A Broader Impact

UB’s ambitions in boosting interest and proficiency in digital manufacturing attributes are not dissimilar, overall, to other efforts happening around the country.

We acknowledge that any program intent on providing the workforce with high-demand skills is beneficial. But unless brought to scale, they are limited in their ability to have the wide-ranging, national impact intrinsic to competing amid the heavyweights of the world.

Some lessons can be extracted from the German vocational training systems supporting that country’s thriving industrial sector. The following are common characteristics, according to the Manpower report “The Future of the Manufacturing Workforce:”

  • Early placement in technology-based learning
  • Comprehensive, company-based internship/apprenticeship programs that mix classroom education with on-the-job training
  • Societal norms that advocate technical and industrial career pathways
  • Similarly standardized educational tracts across states

To this list of attributes, we add additional thoughts on what is necessary for bringing the benefits of digital manufacturing to fruition:

  • Building general awareness of digital manufacturing and the impact it can have on an organization: this requires eliciting a holistic view of all components of the product life cycle, not just technologies and tools.
  • Tapping into non-traditional learning modes: this includes making learning accessible online, as well as opening university-accredited programming to non-enrolled students. For example, line workers who are aware of what’s coming, and realize they need to adapt, are eligible to pursue UB’s advanced manufacturing graduate certificate.
  • Increased partnering between community colleges, four-year institutions and manufacturers: industry requires people with varying skills, from technicians to engineers, researchers and scientists. Greater coordination can help ensure better alignment with industry and abolishing workforce preparation gaps.
  • Garnering government buy-in: policy makers need to be attuned to manufacturers’ needs and be convinced of supporting educational initiatives that boost math and analytical skills, as well as hands-on training, across diverse populations.
  • Sharing of best practices: at least at the state level, best practices in preparing someone for a career in Industry 4.0 need to trickle down, whether in the form of standards or workshops.

Educators do not have the power to solve the talent shortage alone. Neither do employers, or federal and state governments. It will take coordination and collaboration among all sectors to mitigate the skills gap. Greater alignment of industry needs with educational and training programs is the answer to securing our Industry 4.0 future.