What do robots and precision maintenance have in common? The skills gap

What do robots and precision maintenance have in common? The skills gap

May 29, 2024
Chief editor Thomas Wilk says bridging the skills gap was a hot topics at two conferences in May.

The month of May was a busy one for Plant Services, with two key events to cover: A3’s Automate 2024 event in Chicago, and the Leading Reliability 2024 conference in Clearwater Beach, FL.

The annual Automate trade show brought more than 42,000 attendees together with 850+ exhibitors to showcase the latest advancements in robotics, artificial intelligence, and automation technologies. There were a wide variety of pickers, sorters, and AGVs on display, but what caught my attention were the robots designed to interact with humans.

Industrial cobots are gaining ground in popularity and dexterity. As A3 President Jeff Burnstein observed, humanoid robots “are already being used in pilot programs at automotive companies and other spaces. If those are successful, you can anticipate with all the labor shortages out there and you think about the workspace designed for a human, there could be a bigger market than we all may have expected.”

Of course not all automation investments are being made to help cover the technical skills gap. New research on mobile automation (i.e., material transport and order fulfillment machines) introduced at the event by A3 partner Interact Analysis identified the top drivers for investment in this area: reducing operating costs, increasing productivity, and improving operational reliability and accuracy. Lagging far behind these drivers was “because we cannot find/retain enough labor.”

To return to investments that can help cover the skills gap, a key insight was delivered by Eruditio’s Shon Isenhour at the Leading Reliability conference. Isenhour observed that some plants are hesitant to invest in precision maintenance skills training for their teams due to potential employee turnover. One way to mitigate that risk and secure future training investment, he argued, is “to take that precision maintenance training and incorporate it into the development of good job plans.” This way, the plant retains its training investment in a standardized knowledge format that survives both worker turnover and promotion of skilled employees to more senior positions.

I was also struck by how enthusiastic the Gen Z attendees at Leading Reliability were at exploring how automation could help them drive maintenance and reliability improvements. I’ve seen Spot the Boston Dynamics robot at previous Leading Reliability conferences; it wouldn’t surprise me if Automate 2025 or 2026 includes a full maintenance program track.

About the Author

Thomas Wilk | editor in chief

Thomas Wilk joined Plant Services as editor in chief in 2014. Previously, Wilk was content strategist / mobile media manager at Panduit. Prior to Panduit, Tom was lead editor for Battelle Memorial Institute's Environmental Restoration team, and taught business and technical writing at Ohio State University for eight years. Tom holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MA from Ohio State University

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