During the political season, it’s popular to talk about manufacturing jobs and the automotive industry in terms of crisis. And it’s true: the industry is facing a jobs crisis; it’s just not the one most people expect.
Rather than shedding jobs and shipping them overseas, U.S. automakers actually added 300,000 new jobs in the past six years – a third of all manufacturing jobs across industries. Yet they are still treading water. The biggest challenge facing employers today is where to find enough skilled workers to keep factories operating at peak capacity.
This is an area where technology can help, and not just in the expected ways. Automation, robotics and other talked-about innovations can improve productivity of processes. Smart glasses, which bring critical information to the front lines of the manufacturing process, can improve the productivity of people, helping manufacturers close the skills gap faster and empower every worker to contribute more to an organization’s success.
Hiring in the automotive industry isn’t just a problem for HR; it’s keeping CEOs up at night, as well. The numbers tell the story: 2.7 million workers will retire between 2015 and 2025. Over the same period, 3.4 million new manufacturing jobs will be created, according to Deloitte. That’s a gap of 700,000 jobs, or 70,000 per year, that must be filled over the next decade.
No wonder 50% of automotive CEOs surveyed by PriceWaterhouseCoopers expressed concern about the availability of essential skills, and 63% planned to increase their investments in upskilling their workforce.
There is not one silver-bullet solution guaranteed to solve these problems, but deploying wearable technology, in particular smart glasses, can help automotive manufacturers reduce the impact of the skills gap on productivity and quality in several important ways:
Digital inspections and reference. Typically, during automotive manufacturing, if a defect is observed, a line inspector must document the defect type and location on a paper defect log. Without standardization for the defect notes, technicians often have to perform lots of diagnostic tests or request additional data at the end of line area.
With smart glasses, technicians can see all defects associated with the car within their field of view, as well as recommended repair guides and videos for quick reference. This allows them to take before-and-after photos of the defects and record progress of the repair procedure, providing a clear audit trail for all steps in the quality control process – all while keeping their hands free to do the work.
Knowledge capture. The last thing any manufacturer needs is to pull their best people off the line to document their processes, and the last thing any new worker wants to do is sit and study manuals and videos. Smart glasses can solve both these problems at once.
The company’s most experienced, productive workers can visually scan or verbally enter the VIN or QR code of a vehicle using glasses to instantly receive all associated inspection and test results with media and defects needing fixing. As technicians complete these tasks, information and media captured during each task can be automatically synced to the company’s manufacturing execution system (MES) in real-time. Later, less-experienced workers could access that information in context, when and where they need it.
Real-time video collaboration. Typically, automotive manufacturing facilities sprawl across millions of square feet with various multiple processes and workers spread across miles on the factory floor. Using smart glasses, workers not only can communicate instantly but also reach out to colleagues, experts or mentors anywhere. A few senior experts can advise less-experienced workers on tasks as if they were standing right over their shoulder.
Smart glasses offer a way to shortcut the transition from highly skilled senior workers to a new, burgeoning workforce. Previously it had taken five to 10 years for a worker to move from apprentice to master, but that’s just not viable with the skill shortage and industry’s growth.
The automotive industry needs to quickly upskill its workforce. Smart glasses deliver a number of tangible benefits for the business right away while providing a smooth onramp for tomorrow’s workforce.
Brian Ballard is CEO & Co-Founder of APX Labs, which has been developing software solutions to enable new scenarios for smart glasses in the manufacturing enterprise.