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Plugging an industry-wide knowledge gap with technology

The pressure is on businesses to both upskill existing employees and also attract young people with the right knowledge, if they are to get fit for future growth.

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In the Industry 4.0 world, a third of businesses say that AI, robots and highly automated machinery are now a common feature of their day-to-day processes.

ACCORDING to the latest research, over half of the industrial workforce is above 35 years of age, and a third is over 40. As the baby boomers born in the 1940s and 1950s start to retire, this means that the manufacturing, lumber, distribution and retail sectors look set to suffer from a lack of sufficiently-skilled staff in the next 20-30 years.

This means that there is a brewing knowledge gap on the factory floor. The pressure is therefore on businesses to both upskill existing employees and also attract young people with the right knowledge, if they are to get fit for future growth.

However, employers are struggling to find people with the skills that they need, even for entry-level jobs. Many are therefore turning to technology to find the answers - to boost efficiencies where human resource is low, and also to encourage more young recruits to consider a job in industries that may be perceived as less exciting.

How can technology help businesses tackle the knowledge gap?

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Implementing new technology and ways of working can help businesses maintain and improve production levels. Realising this, 41 per cent of businesses are already implementing some form of robot technology. For example, Amazon now has 45,000 robots in its warehouses and Dacia's factory in Romania uses 800 robots to make a new car every 54 seconds.

Because robots can automate repetitive tasks, they are an effective way of relieving a strained workforce from manual or difficult labour (54 per cent), can free up people to work on more creative tasks (40 per cent), and can optimise processes faster and more effectively than humans (34 per cent).

In order to make the most of the latest innovations in workplace robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), businesses are also rapidly putting up-to-date information technology (IT) infrastructure in place.

For example, cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions can be crucial to coordinating robot workflows and sharing data between machines and humans across multiple digital platforms.

Indeed, around a fifth (19 per cent) of businesses questioned in our study agreed that they rely on a single core business system to manage everything.

In the Industry 4.0 world, ERP solutions can also provide businesses with the ability to input and manipulate data, making advanced analytics easier to manage. This allows users greater visibility of the information generated by machines, robots and AI algorithms on the factory floor or across the supply chain.

How can machines solve the young talent problem?

It is clear that machines can go a long way to helping businesses boost their production line efficiencies where human talent may be lacking, or knowledge may be hard to get.

However, with the workforce only getting older, businesses still need to encourage new recruits into the traditional industries in order to flourish and grow.

Here too, the use of robots can help. It was found that 41 per cent of young people overall want the opportunity to work with the latest innovations, and 20 per cent of businesses believe that the chance to work with robotics and AI is a big draw for young talent. Specifically, among millennials, 33 per cent say that they want to be at the cutting edge of new developments.

So, there is a lot that new technology can do to boost workforce ranks. Implementing new innovations can bring real recruitment benefits as well as business efficiencies to industrial firms.

Perhaps the use of technology is, in fact, simply something that industrial businesses need to get better at celebrating? After all, businesses in manufacturing, lumber, distribution, and retail believe that they are perceived as old-fashioned (23 per cent), and not a "young person's industry" (25 per cent).

It is time that these perceptions changed. Talking more widely about the use of robotics on the production line or the use of AI to bring new products to market quickly can only help to get industrial businesses noticed by young people, encouraging more talent into the market. After all, factories running with robots can be squeaky clean, highly intelligent and inspiring environments to work in. These environments have technology at their heart, and are often a far cry from the dirty mechanical factories of the past.

Getting comfortable working alongside robots

With a third (31 per cent) of businesses saying that AI, robots and highly automated machinery are now a common feature of their day-to-day processes, research has shown us that it is time that we all get comfortable working with the latest technology. Technology, indeed, is clearly one of the keys to plugging the burgeoning knowledge gap in industry. Certainly, in order to use the latest advancements in this way, businesses need to have the right infrastructure at their heart.

Automating aspects of the workforce offers a new way of building efficiencies into the supply chain, and enabling digital transformation - this is especially the case when data is shared, processed and analysed effectively. If the workforce is successfully working with the latest technology, it is highly likely that the business is growing.

Together, let's change perceptions and encourage more young talent to consider roles in manufacturing, lumber, distribution and retail. It is time that the world knew just how cutting-edge these industries are.

  • The writer is vice-president, product marketing and manufacturing at Epicor Software
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