The Industrial Workforce of the Future is already here, driven by several macro trends that have produced critical industry-wide talent and skills shortages. Remaining competitive in this environment requires companies to re-imagine how they hire, train, and retain employees as they undertake Industrial Transformation (IX) initiatives. The frontline workforce plays an increasingly central role in the success of these strategic programs. Peter Bussey principal analyst – LNS Research presents the results of a recent survey.

The fast pace of change in smart, connected operations requires an unprecedented level of organisational agility to continuously field a workforce with the right competency profile. In response, many industrial organisations are incorporating connected worker initiatives into their overall digital transformation programs. These initiatives leverage both proven and emerging digital technologies such as mobile devices, robotics, augmented reality, sensor equipped wearables, and IIoT systems.

These and other technologies serve to better connect frontline workers with their work environment, facilitating the multidirectional flow of data, information, insights, and actions to improve processes and overall operational performance. Connected worker technologies play a key role in enabling the industrial workforce of the future by augmenting human capabilities. The goal is a frontline workforce that is more engaged, proactive, and empowered with data-driven insights to make faster, better decisions.

Our research shows that companies that have been most successful with their IX programs have adopted connected worker technologies more than others that are less successful. This report will focus on one such technology, augmented reality (AR), which has proven to deliver value by helping industrial organizations improve productivity, quality, and safety in frontline operations.

Connecting frontline workers across the value chain

Connected worker technologies can deliver value throughout operations and across the entire value chain. LNS Research defines the connected worker scope to potentially include all frontline workers involved in production of goods or delivery of services whether they are working in the plant, at a remote facility, at a customer site, in transit, or some other location.

IX initiatives optimise end-to-end processes by holistic implementation of people, process, and technology capabilities. Connected worker opportunities exist across these digital threads encompassing core value chain functions such as operations, maintenance, and field service, as well as support functions such as EHS and quality.

Similarly, the range of connected worker use case opportunities spans the entire operational management system, with the potential to drive diverse benefits by fundamentally changing how workers interact with and engage in the work environment.

AR and industrial transformation (IX) success

As industrial organisations continue to implement IX programs, there is compelling evidence that AR-enabled use cases should be incorporated appropriately. Our research shows that organisations that are IX Leaders are more likely to implement a variety of connected worker technologies than IX followers, including AR and other digital technologies that are closely related and often part of an AR solution:

  • Augmented reality/virtual reality – 90 per cent more likely
  • Intelligent wearable technology – 70 per cent more likely
  • IIoT technologies – 154 per cent more likely
  • Machine learning/artificial intelligence – 100 per cent more likely
  • Remote operations centres – 71 per cent more likely

This indicates that there is an attractive opportunity for industrial organisations to be proactive in incorporating connected worker initiatives into their IX programs, with AR being among the technologies showing strong potential to support transformation success with productivity, quality, and safety benefits.

Industrial skills gap challenge

Several interrelated forces have combined to create a pressing industry-wide challenge: a global talent and skills shortage in manufacturing and other industrial operations. The major force is an aging workforce that is rapidly retiring, with valuable skills, experience, and institutional knowledge being lost.

Also contributing to the problem is that the widespread implementation of IX programs is introducing a wide array of new digital technologies into industrial operations, such as IIoT platforms, automation systems, and robotics, among many others. This trend changes the competencies needed to effectively deploy technology and provide the operational agility required to respond to dynamic production environments.

Another trend is that younger employees entering the workforce and advancing through the ranks are digital natives with an entirely new set of perceptions and expectations regarding technology. The skills gap produced by the convergence of these forces along with a generally tight labour market in many regions makes it challenging for industrial organisations to find, hire, train, retain, and upskill a qualified workforce with right competency profile.

To be competitive industrial organisations must address the skills gap with a strategic approach that recognises both the risks and opportunities presented by these workforce trends. This includes rethinking how the frontline workforce is managed, meeting new expectations regarding technology in the workplace, and having a plan to leverage connected worker digital technologies. All of these should be brought to bear to meet the unprecedented challenges in hiring, training, and retaining a qualified workforce with the right competency profile over time.

Augmenting human capabilities with industrial AR solutions

The promise of AR in industrial settings is to augment human capabilities by enhancing how people interact with their work environment, including human-machine interaction. AR solutions enable this by superimposing virtual objects and digital content on the real environment, while ensuring correct alignment of the virtual world with the physical one in real time. AR incorporates virtual content into a real three-dimensional scene.

Industrial AR solutions are built from various combinations of software platforms, hardware infrastructure, content, and services. A typical system includes a mobile computing platform, software application authoring platform, detection and tracking to align virtual content with physical objects, display, wireless communication, network connectivity, and data management and analytics.

Applications may be run on-premises or in the cloud. The end-user display is usually a mobile device, either a handheld device (HHD) such as smart phones or tablets, or a head mounted display (HMD) such as smart glasses or some other wearable form factor, such as helmet mounted.

AR solutions have been successfully deployed in a wide range of industry sectors and operational domains.

High potential use cases enabled by augmented reality

Our research shows that augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR) solutions have had significant adoption in industry, on par with adoption rates of other digital technologies such as drones, intelligent wearables, and robotics. More than a third of industrial organisations report having implemented AR/VR or currently piloting these solutions. Another third has already budgeted an AR/VR project.

One of the main challenges in IX initiatives is selecting the right problems to solve. It is also a key to success. Many organisations struggle to identify which use cases to focus on and at what point to do so along the IX journey. Our research assessed IX use cases based on the expected impact on operational performance relative to the effort and resources needed to implement. Connected asset and operations use cases feature prominently as having highly favourable effort-reward ratios, as do Connected Worker use cases. Not surprisingly, the connected worker use cases with the highest potential help address the critical workforce demographic and skills gap challenges faced in all industrial sectors.

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