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Reskilling Workers for a Post-COVID Factory Floor

June 22, 2020
The world has transformed more in the last three months than it has for decades – and with it, so has the skillset required.

As factories around the U.S. reopen and ramp up production, it has become increasingly clear that COVID-19 has changed the manufacturing ecosystem in ways that will be felt long after the pandemic has passed. Growing trade tensions stemming from the pre-COVID era combined with the massive supply chain disruptions we’ve seen over the past few months are leading to fundamental changes on the factory floor.

Broadly speaking, this will fast forward Industry 4.0 with greater connectivity of machines, data, value chains, and, most importantly, people. The key to harnessing this accelerated automation, and grappling with impacts to the manufacturing labor market, lies in the retraining factory workers.

The world has transformed more in the last three months than it has for decades – and with it, so has the skillset required of the manufacturing workforce. Reskilling workers in the age of automation has been a growing discussion point among manufacturing leaders. But we are past the point of discussion and have reached the time for action.

Supply chain disruption accelerates digitization of factory jobs

The global pandemic and exacerbated trade tensions are impacting supply chains, with the most obvious trend being the production of goods closer to their geographical markets. A survey conducted by the Institute for Supply Management revealed that almost 75 percent of American companies have suffered pandemic-related supply chain disruptions. Given the continued level of uncertainty around COVID-19, the crisis-mode resilience of vendors will rise in importance relative to cost, and supply chains will become more regional, particularly in Europe and America.

The regionalization of the supply chain will lead to further automation. While this will enable organizations to remain nimble and react quickly in this challenging environment, it will also drive increased usage of robotics, automation and intelligent software in traditional factory workers’ tasks.

For example, GE Appliances recently unveiled a $125 million refrigeration plant in Decatur, Alabama that includes Industry 4.0 technologies like data visualization, 3D scanning and rapid prototyping with more than 50 robots performing heavy lifting operations, repetitive tasks, and other precise or ergonomically challenging jobs. To prepare workers for this modern manufacturing facility, the GE Appliances team conducting hydraulics training through a local supplier and implemented onsite training in order to reskill its employees for the new factory floor.

Additive manufacturing as a driver for change

As the supply chain regionalizes, additive manufacturing presents both business opportunity and a reskilling path for workers that could help to offset job losses from automation.

In an IndustryWeek survey, over 80 percent of manufacturers indicated that 3D printing has the potential to increase profits. Those results appeared just before the watershed moment in which 3D printing emerged as an unlikely hero during the pandemic, with manufacturers such as Ford and Volkswagen and 3D printing vendors such as HP and Carbon stepping  up to deliver PPE and nasal swab tests to local hospitals in desperate need of these parts. Now that manufacturers have seen the power that 3D printing can have, with its advantages of speed and collaboration, there is a high likelihood that this use case will play a role in driving the manufacturing industry, post-pandemic economy, and regional supply chains.

A manufacturing workforce well-versed in emerging technologies like additive manufacturing will make industry supply chains more flexible and resilient while helping offset job impacts from automation.

Reskilling factory workers for Industry 4.0

In 2018, the World Economic Forum predicted that machines will do more workplace tasks than humans by 2025. With supply chains changing and Industry 4.0 innovations, that timeline appears likely to come sooner than expected. Although some workers who were laid-off or furloughed due to the economic impact of the pandemic have started to be hired back, it is clear that COVID-19 will fundamentally alter the nature of work and the future of our economy.

Businesses have a renewed focus on keeping the health and safety of their workers forefront, increased automation, and the use of more robots – both hardware and software versions. This was already evident before the pandemic with the advance of automation use cases in manufacturing, but the need to reskill workers is now urgent due to regional supply chains and increasing automation.

The future is arriving now; the current environment compels us to embrace change, to be open and curious. Beyond purely technical skills, skills increasingly needed are complex problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity. An example of upskilling would be training workers who have an aptitude for it in data and analytics skills. This will enable them to contribute to increasingly mission-critical tasks such as demand forecasting, which is another area has become important in view of supply chain disruptions.

It is time for all to move beyond talk of reskilling the workforce and to view this as a grand challenge and joint responsibility of educational institutions, government, employers, and the employee. Together we must evolve a wider perspective on how we can amplify our potential in this time of digital transformation – a time of unseen and undiscovered opportunities.

Jasmeet Singh is executive vice president and global head of manufacturing, Infosys.

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