Close the Skills Gap with Robotics: Tackle Specialists Shortage

June 26, 2023

While technology continues to evolve by leaps and bounds, the number of workers with specialized skills seems to be trending in the opposite direction. And while robotics and automation are widely known to create jobs, many of them require specialized training - further exacerbating the shortage of specialists.

Engineer working with automation robotics arms machine in intelligent factory

Progress, whether it be societal or technological, can only ever be considered a positive thing; unless of course there aren’t enough workers with the necessary skills to maintain and build upon that progress. In this article, we’ll examine the different ways in which the skills gap is being addressed.

Urgently Needed: Skilled Workers

There is a very real and imminent problem facing many countries around the globe. A heavily populated generation of hard workers is quickly approaching retirement and, along with their work ethic, their decades’ worth of knowledge and honed skills will soon be departing the workforce. And while that does open the door for eager young workers to take their place, youthful exuberance and eagerness does not immediately translate into skilled work. Fortunately, technologies like robotics, machine learning, and AI can all be leveraged to fill that gap. Technology alone however is not enough to bridge a widening skills gap. As we’ll see in the sections that follow, it is only when emerging technology strikes a balance with human workers do we begin to see a more positive outlook on the workforce of tomorrow.  

Next Generation Cobotics

Cobots will be a key player in reducing the skills gap. While the current generation of cobots are relegated to performing light payload applications, the next generation cobots are being developed to include greater industrial applications, which of course increases the number of tasks they can perform. In fact, some of this year’s most intriguing cobots are being unveiled at the automatica trade show in Munich, Germany. Three models produced by Fanuc, a leader in the industrial cobotics space in Europe, are expected to draw great interest, thanks in part to the intuitive “drag and drop” programming that is no doubt appealing to first time users. The easier these components are to program, the more value a manufacturer will be able to extract from the device using fewer resources. Fanuc isn’t the only company that is looking to make cobotic adoption easier. Both ABB and Yaskawa will also be showcasing models at automatica that are easy to operate, are more “plug and play” than previous cobotics iterations, are faster, safer, and capable of doing more.

Since robotics and cobotics can be programmed to perform all manner of tasks, there is no doubt that their implementation will lessen the blow of the skills gap. They will however require human robotics technicians to maintain and service them to ensure they perform as required.

Improvements in Machine Vision Returns More Data

Data is information - and the more information that can be gathered, processed, and turned into actionable changes the more efficiently a facility will run. To that end, we’ve seen camera technology advance to the point where every pixel captured using a high-resolution industrial camera is a viable data point. Advancements in 3D vision technology also means that fewer cameras are needed to cover a wider area than before, and each can be used to gather different types of data, such as temperatures and distance.

This type of technology will aid the existing workers perform their tasks more efficiently and with a higher rate of accuracy. For example, if a worker places an incorrect product or component on a line, a well-positioned camera can pick up the discrepancy and provide the necessary data to the system to ensure the item is successfully diverted to its correct location. As logistical processes become increasingly automated, leveraging machine vision to ensure accuracy and speed of delivery will be crucial.  

Leveraging Training to Prepare the Workforce of Tomorrow

Barring an unrealistic sci-fi inspired future, humans will never be “plug and play” the same way automation systems are evolving to be. Training and developmental programs will always be required to ensure the next generation will be able to integrate into the in-demand roles of the manufacturing sector. It is therefore imperative that traditional education and internal skill development programs grow and change so that students and transitioning workers have the tools they need to reduce the impact of any future “skills gap”.

Many forward-thinking corporations already invest heavily into programs that will allow their current workforce to develop new skills. The benefit is two-fold; to the employee, they are given the opportunity to modernize their skillsets, ensuring they are employable for longer or able to change industries, if needed. To the company, providing skills development platforms allows a certain degree of planning for the future, ensuring they have employees that have the skills necessary to adapt into new roles as they emerge.  And while investing in current employees seems more than reasonable, many people are thinking that businesses should invest in the development of people outside of their organization – and there is a compelling reason why.

Consider for a moment tech giants Amazon and Microsoft. Both organizations offer free cloud-based training for people outside of their respective organizations to help them build skillsets that will make them employable in ways they may not have had access to before. It is unfortunate, but there are still barriers to education and programs like those offered by Amazon and Microsoft do help tear down some of them.  To be clear, both companies do not perform this service as pure altruism; by offering these courses they are hoping that they will be helping to produce a larger pool of human capital that they themselves can draw upon. 

Automation is Important, Skilled Workers Moreso   

It goes without saying that automation technologies are vitally important to industrial and manufacturing processes. Having said that, a human workforce consisting of skilled labor is still very much needed to design, build, install, and maintain these systems. If you’re interested in being a part of the workforce tasked with maintaining the viability of automation and robotic technologies, speak to a Program Consultant or check out the online courses offered by George Brown College that will lead you down that path.

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