How digitalisation will help solve the manufacturing skills shortage

Posted on 29 Mar 2023 by The Manufacturer

Talented, skilled workers are the lifeblood of the manufacturing industry, but for many businesses, employing staff with the relevant expertise has become an ever-present challenge. With almost 50% of engineering companies dealing with a lack of available relevant skills, the future growth potential for productivity and profitability is questionable.

The overall demand for manufactured goods is also increasing exponentially, further compounding the skills shortage. A recent report  by the Association for Manufacturing Technology found that monthly orders for manufacturing technology in the US surpassed $500m in March 2022, 20.4% higher than in March of the previous year, meaning the skills gap is forecast to widen as the volume of manufactured technological goods increases.

As technology advances, the complexity of manufacturing tasks increases, and so the corresponding skills that workers must master to be effective also increases. Consequently, advances in technology have outpaced the ability of many manufacturing companies to up-skill their workforces. The question that is becoming crucial is: how can workflows be made more efficient to help close this critical manufacturing skills gap?

Microscopy’s role in manufacturing quality control and inspection

Traditionally, visual inspection has been the go-to method for quality control across most industries to identify critical imperfections and defects that affect the quality and reliability of manufactured products. Optical microscopy techniques can assist the human eye in detecting any flaws that could hinder the manufacturing process or compromise the finished product.

With the proper microscope equipment, visual inspection can be a useful tool; however, there are downsides, such as the need for skilled employees to oversee visual inspection processes.

Logistical complexities faced by the manufacturing industry

As companies aim to close the skills gap and address the complexities they face, re-evaluating current protocols for visual inspection training, supervision and the tools they use for these tasks is essential. The need for inspection personnel to learn how to operate multiple types of workstations and software is one area that can be addressed. Not only is it time-consuming and burdensome, it also creates unnecessary complexities for quality-control inspectors and supervisors alike.

In general, manufacturers do everything possible to meet quality standards. However, efficiency is a major concern for them. If the addition of quality control equipment or techniques leads to an increase in quality control tasks, and subsequently increase the potential of more errors, then chances are very high that companies will not use them, or abandon them rapidly.

Although there has been a focus on reducing inspection errors rather than efficiency prior to the skills gap becoming a problem, it is more important now than ever to implement strategies that help improve efficiency and precision in the quality control process rather than continue to complexify it. But what is the best way to do this?

New digital solutions for inspection

Perhaps a more effective training system could assist manufacturers in re-establishing the skills standards they desire more quickly. Investing in available, knowledgeable staff and appropriate curricula to train employees is often overwhelming for some employers. The number of resources needed to complete training must be reduced to make inspection solutions fill the current skills gap effectively.

The digitalisation of inspection tools is one way to accomplish this by establishing more user-friendly and efficient onboarding and quality control processes. The less complicated and more intuitive a system is, the faster QC inspectors can start their jobs. Unless more QC personnel and improved inspection solutions are introduced to manufacturing plants soon, manufacturers may not be able to cope with the demands of production.

Simplifying inspection processes

The skills shortage has prompted some suppliers to offer more innovative solutions that will help manufacturers simplify their workflows. Leica Microsystems has developed a software platform, Enersight, to create a simplified experience for manufacturing quality control. With images of inspected products displayed directly on a monitor with additional functionalities to enable immediate sharing, measurement and annotation, there is no longer a need for a PC to process information. This type of system also streamlines inspection and documentation workflows using a unified interface and operation logic across multiple devices, so users can operate it with little training.

With the adoption of Industry 4.0 principles and manufacturing methods, easy-to-manage digital platforms should become the norm for inspection. Using integrated tools for quality control can help improve access to data so that the communication of inspection results with colleagues can be done efficiently, even if they are in different locations and countries.

In turn, a flexible inspection solution reduces the need to switch between different workstations using specialised software. When data is accessible to everyone who needs it, they are empowered to make decisions quickly and collaboratively. Rather than changing the entire way that quality control and inspections are carried out, improving inspection systems through streamlining their communication processes can make inspection more efficient overall.

To stem this trend for quality-control inspection, Leica Microsystems is working to help users streamline their visual inspection processes by offering a portfolio of flexible microscope solutions for all application and sample needs that provide a consistent interface. Easy-to-use software can help manufacturers keep up with the ever-changing standards for inspection and minimise the time needed to train new inspectors, helping to diminish the skills gap while transforming quality and reliability through digitalisation.

About the author

James O’Brien became Vice President of Life Science and Applied Solutions at Leica Microsystems in January 2023 as the company brought together these businesses. James originally joined the company in March 2019 as VP Applied Microscopy before moving to lead the Life Science Research business unit in June 2020.

James joined Leica Microsystems from Tecan where, over 16 years, his career progressed from a field-based applications role to leading a variety of Tecan’s end customer businesses. James has worked in academic and biopharma research, diagnostic and applied markets throughout his career.

James’ educational background is in biology with his career beginning at Johns Hopkins University in genomic research. He holds an MBA from Kenan-Flagler Business School and the OneMBA program.