Businesses face massive labor shortages across industries. Retail, healthcare, and industrial sectors face some of the most significant shortages. According to the National Association of Manufacturers, the manufacturing industry has lost roughly 1.4 million jobs in two years. Meanwhile, the energy industry cut 20% of its workforce during the pandemic. For example, employment in the US oilfield services and equipment sector was nearly 633,000 in June, below pre-pandemic levels of about 707,000. The latest data from the Labor Department’s JOLT database shows 790,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in June 2022.
A Deloitte/Manufacturing Institute survey also projects that 2.69 million more manufacturing workers will retire by 2030. Massive labor shortages will require companies to rethink how technology can help their clients thrive in such an untenable position. With this in mind, I attended the Honeywell User Group (HUG) conference to speak with companies facing these challenges and hear more about the latest tech trends.
Technology plays a key role in eliminating the skills gap
Honeywell showcased a range of technologies designed to increase productivity, improve safety, and enhance the employee experience. To do this, Honeywell focused on simplifying processes, delivering automation and AI as well as enhancing the breadth of training options with mobility (tablets and smartphones), augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR). Honeywell showcased combining automation and AI to make plants safer and improve the employee experience by automating aspects of required but repetitive tasks.
Pramesh Maheshwari, Honeywell Process Solutions’ Vice President and General Manager Lifecycle Solutions and Services, shared his thoughts on the labor market in an interview with me at HUG. Maheshwari spoke about rethinking product design to be people-first versus capabilities-first. “Covid has increased our customer’s challenges. Even the way people learn is changing. Previously, a person who worked for three years in an industrial field, such as manufacturing or oil and gas, would have been considered a new employee. Today, three years may represent a seasoned employee.”
The question becomes, how can a company minimize a skills gap? Honeywell discussed how its customers will embrace automation, such as the various products in the Industrial Autonomous solutions discussed at HUG. “One challenge (and opportunity) is digitizing systems in a way that allows its customers to capture an employee’s knowledge gained from years of working with Honeywell equipment.” said Mr. Maheshwari. Companies are also thinking differently about education. “Today, what’s changed is that companies are more tightly relating education to a specific process, plant metrics, or business outcomes. As more customers learn of these opportunities, they get excited.”
The need for automation was underway in the manufacturing industry well before the current labor shortage, but companies like Honeywell are creating better solutions today. Intensely manual processes limit productivity and scalability. Employee departures have forced employers to fast-track plans to implement automation technologies. Safety is a crucial concern, especially for new employees.
Maheshwari said, “If people are not following the right process and performing it correctly, there can be safety hazards. To support this, we use analytics, virtual reality, and AI. In the past, it was akin to an apprenticeship, where an individual had to have newer employees follow them for many months before a new hire could work independently. Additionally, specific tasks such as shutting down a refinery for maintenance may only happen every six to seven years. Today, Honeywell uses analytics, augmented reality and headsets that offer immersive experiences to help ensure employees follow correct procedures.”
For example, Honeywell offers solutions, such as an immersive module for the whole plant that allows people wearing goggles to virtually walk through the plant and see the equipment in 3D. Employees can open the hood of equipment in 3D to investigate potential issues. Other solutions it offers help predict what equipment, such as a reactor or engine, may fail. Predictive analytics helps a customer discover and proactively schedule maintenance to minimize outages. To make it more accessible, employees can use a headset, a mobile device, a TV, or whatever they have on site. Honeywell says it’s seeing training use cases in a more controlled environment, such as inside a room or a classroom. Maheshwari shared that companies were not at the point where they were adopting an immersive HoloLens virtual reality experience, but he expects this will happen in the future.”
Remote assist features will allow an expert at one location to monitor and guide an employee that can be thousands of miles away, improving quality and training. While we’ve discussed these features for some time, we’ve finally entered an area where we have a range of technology options, from smartphones to virtual reality headsets, that are cost-effective and high-performance. Given the labor shortage, organizations are more likely to embrace these new solutions.
Maheshwari said, “There was a time when an operator carried sheets of paper in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other to perform plant inspections, capture data readings, and pictures.” Honeywell discussed how its technology could assist its customers with automatic data capture and health monitoring equipment. One significant advancement is the creation and availability of digital models for various scenarios (called digital twins) and software such as Honeywell Forge Enterprise Performance Management (EPM) applications. “We’re also using these technologies to document tribal knowledge.” Maheshwari said.
Honeywell can codify these learnings using AI models, but that doesn’t mean a company can eliminate employees from the process. Organizations still need to check to ensure the models are working as planned. According to Maheshwari, the first step is understanding the knowledge gaps within an organization. The traditional way of understanding the knowledge gap was by asking people to fill out forms and answer questions. He said, “Today, we have access to technology to understand how someone acts on alarms and events. We can do this automatically without needing someone to monitor an individual constantly. It’s using technology to develop the person’s skills instead of penalizing the individual for errors.”
AI to the rescue
This information helps companies form specialized training and development. Remote assistance technologies can provide employees with just-in-time knowledge requirements. AI models support the process by predicting potential equipment failures and guiding employees on what may go wrong. Maheshwari said, “It’s about understanding the gaps, making a plan, delivering the plan, and supporting employees as they do the job. Technology will become like a copilot.”
The copilot analogy is good because it highlights that technology can assist instead of replacing the worker. We’re in a dynamic, transitioning marketplace where organizations need to embrace technologies to fill the gaps. However, we must understand the boundaries of what technologies can and cannot do. AI is extremely powerful, but it’s not at a developmental state where we can simply set it and forget it. AI isn’t like the magic button that you press, and it does everything. Assistive is the first critical step, and it adds tremendous value.
Maheshwari closed our interview by saying, “We view our technology as enhancing an individual’s value by making them more competent and skilled through technology. We’re not trying to replace them. It helps humans be safer, more productive, and more efficient so that we can do the bigger things.” Three items became clear from my discussion with Honeywell and its customers. First, there’s a genuine desire to avoid impending doom or labor shortages. Second, education is strongly needed to bridge the skills gap and improve safety. Third, we can leverage AI and other technologies to increase safety and efficiency. It’s good to see industrial specialists, such as Honeywell, focusing on this problem.