Exploring Workforce Integration in the Age of Automation

Last week, the annual Medical Design & Manufacturing (MD&M) conference was held at the Jacob J. Javits Center in New York. The largest and longest-running medtech event on the East Coast, this year’s MD&M event saw a range of different exhibitors, panels, and educational programs.

One panel, “Workforce Integration in the New Age of Smart Technologies,” focused on the challenges of forming a skilled, reliable workforce in today’s age of automation and advanced connectivity.

Moderated by Rob Spiegel, senior editor of Design News, a monthly U.S. trade publication published by UBM Electronics, the panel was made up of Brian Federal, a futurist and the managing director at Prana Communications; David Iyoha, director of software solutions at Fortech LLC; Bruce Lichorowic, president of Galen Robotics; and Josh Olgin, director of robotics practice at Direct Recruiters.

Finding the Proper Workforce in the Age of Automation

The panel started off with a general question regarding the difficulties of creating a proper workforce amid the rise of Industry 4.0.

Olgin stressed the importance of allowing millennials to learn from the old guard, the baby boomer generation of industrial workers.

But, as Federal noted, this can sometimes prove challenging, as we’re essentially training for the jobs of the future, and none of us know exactly what those jobs will look like. And since we’re already facing a skills gap for the new age of automation, he said, the United States will need to reexamine how children are educated and how we approach trade education and career training.

Lichorowic drew on this point, citing the robotics internship program at Galen Robotics, which provides course credit for students while providing them with real-world job experience that will allow them to thrive in today’s shifting landscape.

Iyoha also pointed out the outdated reputation still surrounding the manufacturing sphere, which presents a problem for companies big and small; a wide skills gap remains despite the high demand for manufacturing jobs. He, too, stressed the need for more vocational training programs and apprenticeships that will prepare the next generation of workers for the new industrial revolution.

Creating Effective Training and Education Programs

Drawing from these responses, Spiegel asked about alternatives to traditional hiring practices — if and how technology is a playing a role in bringing workers up to speed on necessary skills.

Iyoha started off, citing the benefits of using augmented reality (AR) in the workplace to monitor workers and identify areas for improvement while catching mistakes in real time. He also cited the advantage of robotics in eliminating dull, dirty, tedious jobs, which opens up new jobs in robotics while allowing for enhanced productivity.

Lichorowic stressed the importance of employers providing ongoing training for workers, allowing both the company and its employees to remain competitive in an ever-shifting industrial space in which those who don’t evolve get left behind. He also mentioned the value of virtual reality (VR) in the medical community, as the technology allows for enhanced training programs that simulate real-life situations.

Creating educational silos in the workplace, Lichorowic added, is crucial, as this will allow companies to retrain employees whose jobs are being replaced by robotics. He emphasized the need to recognize that robots will replace some jobs, so establishing mentors in different departments and offering new opportunities for workers is vital for retaining a solid workforce and adjusting smoothly to the new face of industry.

Federal, too, emphasized the value in employer training programs, saying that industry must take it upon itself to create a space for education and training rather than relying solely on government and educational institutions. Providing young people with trade opportunities and education early on, he added, can also play a major role in abolishing the idea of manufacturing as a low-on-the-totem-pole career path.

The top priorities to ensure success, Olgin said, are honing in on the right skill set, educating workers on the new technologies entering the workspace, and creating an effectively disruptive presence.

Looking Ahead

The panel closed on an optimistic note, as Lichorowic touched upon the many ways in which robotics are changing the workplace for good.

In the medical community, for example, many surgeons develop repetitive motion or chronic neck, back, and hand pain from years of heavy-duty or repetitive operating work. In many cases, robots can assist with aspects of the job, relieving surgeons of the more tedious aspects of certain surgeries. And in brain surgery, more specifically, robots can help in holding tools for aging surgeons dealing with tremors.

In this way, Lichorowic said, robotics aren’t just about replacing humans; they’re about enhancing workplace processes and improving the way we go about our jobs. This, combined with the real-life, hands-on knowledge the next generation can glean from the baby boomers, Olgin said, will be the key to ongoing success in the medical sector and the industrial world as a whole.

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