The COVID-19 pandemic unexpectedly and immediately reshaped our way of working, with management teams and HR departments scurrying into action to get their newly remote workforce up-and-running and maintaining continuity.

While most organisations have moved past the initial worker productivity concerns, there are still strategic considerations and pain points to address in the ‘new normal’, most noticeably pre-COVID workforce issues increasing and new workforce challenges starting to bleed into long-term digital strategies.

These two facts are relevant in many sectors, but their impact on industrial companies is possibly more significant.

Businesses need to enable frontline workers so they can embrace the physical nature of their work, which COVID-19 severely challenges. Augmented reality (AR) could well be the missing link, delivering proven technology to solve both new and old issues facing the industrial workforce and driving unimaginable levels of productivity.

Existing workforce issues are intensifying, not disappearing

Although some top-of-list priorities may have shifted due to the pandemic, they certainly didn’t disappear and, in some cases, have become much more urgent.

  • Recruiting the next generation & retaining expert knowledge

Attracting and retaining a quality workforce became a less pressing issue during the peak of the pandemic, but that didn’t last long. Manufacturers are still fighting negative perceptions of the work they do by prospective employees, with many still perceiving industry as working ‘in a dirty, dangerous place that requires little thinking or skills.’ 

The other half of this employment conundrum for manufacturers is retention, which is becoming incredibly difficult with other sectors doing a much better job of self-promotion and an ageing workforce threatening to take skills with them when they retire.

Juggling the need to recruit the next crop of talent with the inevitable departure of experienced workers has formed a sizeable skills gap, with some experts predicting hundreds of thousands of jobs in industry over the next decade.

COVID-19 has only intensified these pressing realities by restricting on-site workforce interactions and forcing stringent health and safety measures that make on-the-floor job shadowing extremely difficult due to social distancing.

At the other end of their careers, many experienced manufacturing personnel, whom would be educating these new recruits in-person, are unable to transfer their knowledge and soon will be taking their tacit knowledge with them into retirement.

The ‘new normal’ means new challenges

Almost overnight, business operations halted and production sites around the world were left underprepared for the immediate disruption of COVID-19. Companies quickly scrambled to implement work-from-home polices, impose travel bans, and form new policies for health and safety.

As has been well-documented, the ‘Genie is out of the bottle’ with COVID-19 and the way we work will be forever changed.

A recent CPID survey showed:

  • 37% of employers expect the proportion of people working from home on a regular basis to increase (compared to 18% before the pandemic)
  • Nearly a quarter of employers expect the majority of staff who work from home all the time to rise
  • Approximate 2/3rds of companies believe productivity has remained the same or improved as a result of home working

Nationwide, the UK building society, has even told 13,500 of its staff to ‘work from anywhere’.

Companies who navigate this unexplored landscape by empowering their workforce to maintain business continuity and drive productivity will become industry leaders in the next decade.

This means businesses have had to become smarter on how to optimise their constrained workforce with these policies, but this is much more difficult for industrial firms with frontline workers whose work is physical in nature. With COVID-19 limiting in-person collaboration, many have been left on their own to solve mission-critical tasks without the proper information or guidance.

This inaccessible information may reside in paper-based form in an employee’s desk or solely in the head of an experienced expert. The lack of relevant, contextualised and up-to-date information for frontline workers, when and where they need it, is resulting in significant losses to productivity.

Augmented Reality for your old and new workforce challenges

What’s valuable about augmented reality is the vast array of existing and new workforce challenges it can help overcome – from recruitment to training to retention and beyond.

Augmented Reality features are quickly becoming mainstay in everyday consumer applications, from shopping to navigation. AR’s growing familiarity will increasingly transcend employment preferences, as companies use it to drive value in cutting-edge enterprise applications and sway off previous Gen-Z discernments of manufacturing. 

AR is also the very best medium to train the next-generation workforce because of its proven effectiveness for learning. It enables ‘just-in-time’ training, which delivers learners only the relevant and in-context information.

This upends traditional classroom training models for frontline workers where they are forced to memorise lengthy product manuals or operating procedures ‘just-in-case’, and independent of any context to the real-world. Virtual classroom training (a method for many during COVID-19) has been proven to do little to improve knowledge retention and long-term skills development.

Using AR to visualize and interact with product information provides the trainee with relevant 3D digital content, such as interactive guided service instructions.  Manufacturers, like GSI (an AGCO brand), were limited pre-COVID by outdated weeklong training classes with hundreds of presentation slides, and minimal interactions with the physical equipment that the trainees would be installing in the real world. By embracing AR for immersive training, GSI reduced installation time of new grain systems by 60%.

The importance of up-to-date work instructions is critical to daily tasks for both new starters and existing employees to overcome complex tasks. Rockwell Automation reduced training time of new hires by 30% by creating a knowledge library delivered through AR step-by-step work instructions. Volvo Group has also empowered its quality assurance operators with augmented work instructions so that they can complete 40 QA checks (out of 200 possible variants) on their highly configured, complex engines in only eight minutes.

The challenge of capturing and dispersing critical workflows was already mounting due to the skills gap and knowledge exiting companies with employees retiring or switching sectors, but COVID-19 added to the disruption of this flow of information.

Augmented Reality is the best method of capturing these expert workflows and rapidly scaling this knowledge to workers for hands-on training and task guidance. Accessing this in-context information enables manufacturers like GlobalFoundries to document and deliver standardised and scalable work instructions, which accelerates training time by 40% and decreases unscheduled downtime by 25%.

Complex problems still require seamless communication, but both COVID-19 and the scarce supply of internal experts present challenges to tapping into this important supporting resource. AR for Remote Assistance instantly connects these remote experts for over-the-shoulder live support and collaboration to solve complex tasks. For example, Howden was challenged with mobilising personnel for on-site customer support during the pandemic and turned to Remote Assistance for real-time, expert remote assistance to quickly resolve service issues.

These AR use cases are driving significant value today and, as augmented reality becomes more prevalent, next-generation applications will create unprecedented workforce gains.  This includes using AR and spatial computing to measure a worker’s distance to another for maintaining social distancing or warning of possible collisions with an approaching mobile robot. 

Final thoughts

COVID-19 significantly challenged the day-to-day activities of hundreds of thousands of companies, and some were far more prepared than others. Businesses further along their digital transformation journeys were better equipped to maintain business continuity and transition their workforce to a new way of working.

Embracing this inevitable workforce shift as a step towards the future way of work will further create distance between top economic performers and digital laggards. Organisations will continue to turn to AR as the current and future technology platform to power their workforce of the future. Why? Because the business case says so.

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