With Deloitte predicting a shortage of more than 2.1 million manufacturing jobs by 2030, finding ways to address the skills gap is a priority for many in industry. Currently, manufacturers are faced with a dual-pronged issue: On the one hand, many older workers are nearing retirement age. At the same time, outmoded conceptions of what manufacturing entails has made it difficult to attract and retain new employees.
Recently, many companies have turned to digital transformation to address this issue. Not only can the introduction of digital workflows make careers in manufacturing more appealing to younger hires—it can also aid in capturing and maintaining the knowledge held by veteran employees who are preparing for retirement.
For instance, remote access and augmented reality (AR) have been used to allow retired workers, who are experts in a given plant’s systems, to easily shepherd new workers through difficult tasks, easing the training pipeline. Similarly, the aggregation of data into digital databases containing equipment schematics, computer-aided design (CAD) models, and multimedia content has made both the preservation and dissemination of vital knowledge much easier.
One recent example of a company taking this approach is Georgia-Pacific, a manufacturer of tissue, pulp, packaging, building products, and related chemicals.
The company has 150 production facilities with 35,000 employees across the globe, making alignment no small task. All the same, in 2015, approximately 40% of its workforce was over the age of 55, creating the threat of labor shortages and a loss of critical knowledge. Not only that, but with new investments in advanced analytical capabilities and other automation technologies such as robotics on the horizon, Georgia-Pacific feared it might lose its competitive edge.
Breaking down the information silos
One of the primary challenges for the company was that each business unit at Georgia-Pacific had separate systems, each of which had its own way of operating. As a result, knowledge transfer between the business units was either shaky or non-existent.
“Much of Georgia-Pacific’s technology needed to be upgraded, integrated, and secured, which presented a challenge since the IT (information technology) and OT (operations technology) organizations were siloed. There was a wide range of technology within each facility that provided just enough support to get by,” said Keith Higgins, vice president of digital transformation at Rockwell Automation. “Most internal capability groups attempted to predict problems based on experience and beliefs rather than leveraging concrete data. In addition, production and cost improvements were stagnant to negative year-over-year.”
To solve this problem, Georgia-Pacific partnered with Rockwell to form a digital transformation team composed of employees from a variety of different disciplines, including business strategists, software engineers, operational subject matter experts, security experts, and continuous improvement analysts. The group huddled with the goal of figuring out how best to capture, retain, and transmit knowledge from retiring employees to current and incoming staff. Their process began by focusing on small, scalable technology projects and goals to gain traction and show impact. Over time, the initiative grew to encompass the larger organization.
The importance of remote access
A key aspect of Georgia-Pacific’s strategy involved leveraging remote access technology to enable all employees and external partners to connect to production facilities remotely. This allowed an environment to take shape wherein facilities, business units, and employees could be more easily aligned. Simply put, the old siloes spoken of by Higgins where replaced with a more unified ecosystem driven by Rockwell’s FactoryTalk suite of software products, which provides a scalable collection of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) applications.
To support knowledge transfer via its new remote capabilities, Georgia-Pacific also created a new collaboration and support center designed to operate facilities remotely. This allows the company to provide support and enable collaboration through constant monitoring, predictive analytics, and sharing of subject matter expert insights. As a result, services and support from a unified pool of expertise—representing single source of truth for the company—can now be provided to specific areas of the business based on specific needs.
“By enabling the workforce with remote capabilities [to access information], organizations can overcome traditional differences, create a more effective team and improve their capacity, much like Georgia-Pacific,” Higgins said. “Moving forward, Georgia-Pacific plans to strengthen resource optimization between facilities while creating a common, secure platform to bring real-time transparency to the customer at the center of its business ecosystem.”