A manufacturer’s greatest asset is the experience and knowledge of its people. As today’s digital transformation evolves and impacts the industrial automation landscape, manufacturers must have personnel on hand who have deep domain knowledge working on both new and legacy control systems. This highly skilled, multidisciplinary workforce is essential not only to maintain and sustain existing infrastructure, but also to get up to speed on the innovative technologies required to operate open, interoperable and secure systems. Without this workforce knowledge and development, manufacturers will be hard-pressed to optimize and improve operational efficiency and productivity for future growth.
The Workforce Dilemma
Oftentimes, manufacturers tend to focus more on new systems and technology than they do on people and processes. They may be up for the technological challenge migrating to a smarter, more connected digital enterprise presents, but for many, workforce development issues impede forward progress.
For more than a decade, industry discussions have centered on how to solve the workforce development challenges:
- What happens when your more experienced engineers leave or retire?
- Do you have an efficient way to capture and transfer their knowledge to existing or new employees?
- How do you attract and retain up-and-coming engineers to fill the skills gap?
Today, many manufacturers still don’t have a method in place to capture and share knowledge or to attract and retain new engineers. They face workforce attrition and retirement, which places additional tasks on existing automation engineers who already have heavy workloads.
In many instances, for example, personnel often find themselves reacting more to the higher-priority tasks than they do to improving routine operational processes. They have little bandwidth to perform updates to keep new and legacy hardware and software secure and optimized. In some cases, they may lack the required level of experience to effectively troubleshoot and diagnose system failures or the daily process issues that come up, which leads to the potential for equipment failure and downtime. In these circumstances, it’s important to review all available resource options, including consulting a third-party expert who has the experience and highly qualified skills to assess, analyze and make recommendations on small- to large-scale projects to minimize risk and downtime and significantly reduce costs.
Meanwhile, the more experienced engineers approaching retirement are also under enormous pressure and in high demand. Consequently, they lack the time required to transfer their golden knowledge to others, and in some instances, they may not even realize the value of the knowledge they carry around with them. They have been doing their jobs extremely well for so long that it has become second nature to them. They may just assume that what they do and know is obvious to everyone. This so-called “tribal” knowledge—that specialized knowledge they possess because of their deep familiarity with the various system, production and process issues they have experienced over the years—tends to go undocumented and hasn’t been shared with colleagues.
In some facilities, for example, entire teams may be unaware of nuances that key operators and production supervisors deploy in alarm response or in their daily operations. Losing undocumented knowledge through attrition or retirement can lead to significant operational challenges and therefore lead to significant costs.
To stay competitive in this digitally transformed world, people become even more important. Manufacturers must make it a priority to resolve their workforce development issues. They must have a process in place to tap in-house resources to streamline operations in a way that personnel can perform their daily routine tasks and any new projects without missing a beat.
Steps to Success
Invest in people and deploy a system for capturing and sharing tribal knowledge.
Whether they realize it or not, manufacturers have invested greatly in the tribal knowledge that their long-term engineers possess from working on their facility systems and process issues. It’s a shame not to make this valuable knowledge available to the entire team or, even worse, to lose it when an employee leaves the company or retires.
To deploy a system and retain the value of the investment made in developing high-quality talent over the years, manufacturers should analyze the skills gaps among existing personnel and develop an employee list and priority matrix. Consider the team’s level of experience and whether they really have the time, for example, to define, design, configure and implement a control system migration effort in addition to their normal daily responsibilities. Plan and establish a training or mentoring program to capture and transfer knowledge. This ensures employees have the skills to backup and effectively cover specific areas within a facility for when personnel go on vacation or leave the company.
Mentor and transfer knowledge to the next generation.
Manufacturers should think of a mentoring process as a preventative maintenance program with routine continuous improvement checks. Taking the time to develop and help improve people and processes is key to operational success. By effectively utilizing experienced and retiring subject-matter experts (SMEs) as mentors, manufacturers can train up-and-coming engineers on new and legacy system infrastructure. This process ensures a smoother transition learning and implementing new systems and technology updates, as well as enables a higher level of efficiency and productivity overall. It also helps build confidence among new engineers and improves team collaboration and communication.
To start a mentor program, set up a schedule for new engineers to spend at least two weeks with each SME listed in the priority matrix to fully understand what they do. The new engineer shadows and interviews each expert and then documents the process and what they learned about the job. Personnel can then create a training video in a click-as-you-go format to share with employees who are identified in the skills gap matrix. Typically, for retiring personnel, it is best to start this mentoring process 1 to 2 years before an individual reaches their retirement. In this way, personnel have plenty of time to discover and capture the tribal knowledge and create training material for future workers.
Actively attract, recruit and train the next generation to fill the skills gap.
As the new technological solutions, services and methodologies enter the workplace, manufacturers will experience a shift in the types and level of skill sets required to keep operations up and running. To this end, manufacturers will need to attract and retain new talent who relate well to a more modern workplace—one that offers smart, open systems that can operate on new technology, such as high-fidelity simulation tools, artificial intelligence, digital twin, cyber security and safety tools, mobile applications, cloud and edge computing, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and more.
People learn and develop skills best with real-world, hands-on experience, especially when the required skills to perform a job vary when going from one facility to another due to the disparate equipment used. Typically, the perfect time for more experienced engineers to transfer their tribal knowledge to the next generation of automation engineers and facility operators is during a system upgrade or full-scale migration project. In this way, people learn to operate legacy and new systems alike while adapting to a digitally transformed facility with its modern tools and techniques.
Partner with a third-party, platform-independent team of experts to leverage industry best practices.
The time and energy needed to successfully capture and transfer tribal knowledge can be daunting, especially when lack of resource bandwidth is an issue. In this situation, consider leveraging a third-party, platform-independent team of automation experts who can not only help assess, analyze, capture and transfer in-house operational knowledge to all groups within the facility but also share their own solutions and services expertise. A full solutions provider brings the huge advantage of the many lessons learned from their consulting and project management experience working on various processes and platforms.
In addition, the right trusted partner understands your industry and process, along with any special requirements needed to plan, schedule and implement new upgrades or modernization projects. Depending on the partner, they can also offer 24/7/365 remote management support to ensure personnel and the facility keep systems up and running with little to no downtime, which can significantly reduce costs.
The Ties that Bind
To open the door to a more modernized facility, manufacturers must invest in the experience and knowledge of their people. At the end of the day, the time spent developing and nurturing a highly skilled workforce will produce stronger teams working together toward common goals and improved operational efficiencies and productivity. Manufacturers will soon reap the benefits of this collaborative effort. They will discover this newfound knowledge base is their golden ticket to success.