Bridging the Skilled Labor Gap in the Manufacturing Industry

Bridging the Skilled Labor Gap in the Manufacturing Industry

Bridging the Skilled Labor Gap in the Manufacturing Industry

By Jeff Fulgham, ProcessMiner

The skilled labor gap is a real and pressing concern for manufacturers. As baby boomers retire or leave the workplace, there are simply not enough skilled workers to replace them. This is expected to have a major impact on the manufacturing industry as companies struggle to find the talent they need to keep production going.

In fact, according to a study by The Manufacturing Institute, more than two-thirds of manufacturers are concerned about the lack of skilled labor available to replace these retiring workers. 

According to McKinsey, in the next ten to fifteen years, the pulp, paper and packaging industry will be under an immense amount of pressure to keep up with rapidly changing developments. New business models brought about by an increasingly online world, along with a heightened need for innovation and commercialization of products, will mean that the talent pool within these companies will be put under immense strain.

Furthermore, digitalization is set to have a profound effect on manufacturing processes – meaning that even the content of work will be transformed. Consequently, it is clear that forest-products companies must start to invest in their talent pool now, in order to avoid being left behind in the years to come.

The days of workers toiling away in dirty, dangerous factories are coming to an end. With the rise of automation and artificial intelligence, many jobs that have traditionally been performed by human beings are now being done by machines. This shift is already underway in the pulp, paper and packaging industry, where 60 percent of all tasks can now be automated. In the coming years, this trend is only going to accelerate, with more than 30 percent of physical and manual skills becoming obsolete.

This presents a major challenge for companies in the industry, who will need to reskill their workforce to keep up with the times. But it also presents an opportunity. Those companies that are able to embrace the future of work will find themselves with a major competitive advantage.

So the question is: which side are you on?

As baby boomers leave the manufacturing workforce, they take with them years of experience and knowledge.

The labor shortage in the manufacturing industry has been steadily worsening over the years as more experienced workers retire without passing on their skills to the next generation. The result is a widening skills gap that threatens to hamper the industry’s ability to compete in the global marketplace.

The knowledge these baby boomers are taking with them cannot be easily replaced, which means the lack of experienced workers that can operate and maintain sophisticated equipment is a real and present danger to the manufacturing industry.

That being the case, manufacturers are turning to artificial intelligence (AI) to help bridge the gap. By leveraging AI technologies, manufacturers can train machines to perform tasks that previously required human expertise.

Big Data and Industry 4.0: Exciting Opportunities Offer Significant Cost Savings in the Pulp and Paper Industry - Paper Factory

AI can help to close the labor gap in three ways: by providing a digital workforce that can operate 24/7, by training the next generation of workers, and by improving productivity, thereby reducing the need to replace workers one-for-one.

AI in manufacturing can be used to help with things like quality control and product inspection. By using AI, manufacturers can reduce their reliance on human labor. This is especially helpful in industries where there is a lot of repetitive work that needs to be done.

  • A digital workforce is not subject to human limitations, such as breaks or vacations. They can also be easily scaled up or down to meet changing labor needs. Additionally, because they are not human, they do not need to be paid and can work for free.
  • The second way AI can help is by training the next generation of workers. By using historical data and collecting domain expertise from current workers, AI can create models that show the most efficient way to complete a task. These models can then be used to train and support new workers, significantly reducing the time it takes them to ramp up and be productive. 
  • Properly deployed, the combination of predictive analytics and AI can provide next-level insights that can reduce the need for human intervention and allow few employees to deliver the output/impact of many. For example, by predicting a problem before it occurs and taking action to correct it in real-time, manufacturers have been able to reduce staff, improve quality and increase production.

ProcessMiner, an industry-leading AI platform, helps manufacturers autonomously optimize product quality, reduce waste, save raw materials, and improve overall equipment effectiveness, 

ProcessMiner is at the forefront of helping manufacturers combine IT and OT data to unlock hidden insights and deliver returns of more than $500K per year, per manufacturing line. The ProcessMiner platform automatically delivers improvements to overall operational effectiveness in the areas of availability, performance, and quality.

Manufacturing Needs to Stay Competitive in Today’s Ever-Changing Business Landscape

The manufacturing industry is changing rapidly, with artificial intelligence and technology playing an increasingly important role. Manufacturers that keep up with the changing landscape of technology and make it known that these advancements are being used will appeal to young workers. Potential employees want to see that the company is modern and keeping up with current trends, and investing to improve workers’ skills – factors that are important to many younger generations.

AI can provide a number of benefits to the manufacturing industry, including increased efficiency, improved quality control, and reduced costs. In addition, AI can help manufacturers train new employees and keep existing employees up-to-date on new technologies and processes. By investing in AI, manufacturers can stay competitive in today’s ever-changing business landscape.

Jeff Fulgham - ProcessMiner

Jeff Fulgham, ProcessMiner Business Advisor

Jeff Fulgham is a Senior Executive with over 40 years of experience in corporate strategy, strategic marketing, enterprise sales, and M&A. Jeff is passionate about innovation and aligning unique solutions with unmet customer needs to solve big challenges.

Jeff’s experiences include executive-level roles at General Electric, Banyan Water, a venture capital-backed startup, and Solenis, a private equity-owned carve-out. He has successfully led global marketing, services and research teams, acquisitions and divestitures, and is a recognized expert in addressing the global water crisis, helping major global clients optimize water & energy resources and reduce waste.

Big Data and Industry 4.0: Significant Cost Savings in the Pulp and Paper Industry

Big Data and Industry 4.0: Exciting Opportunities Offer Significant Cost Savings in the Pulp and Paper Industry

Big Data and Industry 4.0: Exciting Opportunities Offer Significant Cost Savings in the Pulp and Paper Industry

Perceptions in the pulp and paper industry are that we are behind other industries, and this is not necessarily correct; the reality is enough thought leaders and entrepreneurial activities are approaching our industry, and, in fact, we are right on schedule.

By Dr. Chris Luettgen

Professor of the Practice, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering College of Engineering; Associate Director, Pulp and Paper Renewable Bioproducts Institute; Director, Georgia Tech Pulp and Paper Engineering, Undergraduate Certificate Program and Foundation

In the pulp and paper industry, there is a lot of excitement about the potential of big data analytics and Industry 4.0 to optimize plant operations further. Driven by global demand, sustainability efforts, an aging workforce and margin pressures, the time has come for the pulp and paper industry to reap the full benefits of AI.

Industry 4.0 involves using digital technologies to create smart factories that are more efficient and responsive to customers’ needs.  While manufacturers have long been using data analytics for process monitoring, fault detection and equipment health prognostics, these new tools represent the latest trends in manufacturing.

With the end goal of increasing levels of productivity, improving product quality, reducing scrap and lowering costs, simply put, big data delivers the insights and outcomes necessary for success. Digital technologies, like machine connectivity and intelligent automation, leverage big data and analytics to deliver these outcomes.

Big Data and  aIndustry 4.0: Exciting Opportunities Offer Significant Cost Savings in the Pulp and Paper Industry - Robot

Many manufacturers are exploring these new technologies to gain a competitive edge in the market. However, digital transformation is still uncharted territory for most pulp & paper companies. Only 15 percent of endeavors are eventually deployed successfully in production, often due to the lack of a clear priority and resources, both the people and the investment levels to succeed. While technology lays the groundwork for managing and analyzing this data, success is dependent on people using the resulting insight, and that is where the challenge lies and state-of-the-art AI platforms have helped.

The pulp and paper industry is striving to become more digital but lags behind other sectors in its application of these technologies. TAPPI’s recent survey on pulp and paper manufacturing practices found that 36 percent of pulp and paper manufacturers were already using some type of Industry 4.0 technology (automation, connected devices, robotics), an increase from 25 percent in 2016. However, except for automation systems (21 percent), few pulp and paper producers reported significant impacts from their investments in smart factory technologies: 51 percent said their investment had a minimal impact on productivity and only four percent said they experienced substantial gains in productivity (defined as anything more than 10 percent). In addition, only 16 percent reported gains in quality with Industry 4.0 applications.

Big Data and Industry 4.0: Exciting Opportunities Offer Significant Cost Savings in the Pulp and Paper Industry - Paper Factory

The pulp and paper industry is lagging behind other sectors in applying Industry 4.0 technologies like big data analytics, robotics, and connected devices. As a result, manufacturers are struggling to find ways to harness the power of these new technologies without sacrificing the principles that have made pulp and paper companies successful for more than a century. Nevertheless, pulp and paper producers need to recognize the potential impact of these new tools. If a company does not adopt these new technologies quickly enough, competitors will gain a significant advantage in the market, with respect to raw material costs, quality to specification, and consistent downstream customer satisfaction.

There is a perception that the pulp and paper industry is behind other sectors somehow. Still, I believe the reality is that we are not behind, as there are significant activities of thought leaders, and entrepreneurs entering our industry. There are demonstrations occurring throughout our industry that are proving the real financial benefits of predictive and constantly updated machine learning. 

True AI is only a breath away.  I also do not think that perceptions are important. What is essential, at least to me, is that pulp and paper producers invest in whatever they believe provides them with a competitive advantage. And if that is Industry 4.0 technologies, so be it!

The savings and cost justifications for investment in AI and smart manufacturing are multi-fold: chemical savings, energy savings, reduction in waste production, all of which will translate to higher yield, and overall reduced raw material costs. In addition, the pulp and paper industry is fascinated by big data analytics and Industry 4.0 – researchers expect AI to be an important driver of technological change in pulp and paper production within the next three years. However, pulp and paper producers are struggling to find ways to harness the power of these new technologies without sacrificing the principles that have made pulp and paper companies successful for more than 100 years – improved labor density and material efficiency.

Ultimately, it gives engineers and operators the tools to solve problems proactively rather than constantly fighting fires. We see many mills that are so lean, particularly with respect to real domain knowledge. Those who are present are continually fighting the fires of keeping the sheet on the reel, resulting in little time for continuous improvement, let alone step-change improvement. The promise here is that these industry 4.0 tools will free up the personnel and take them away from the fires that will douse themselves. The result is that talented staff members can work on the next thing.

Today, there many examples where AI and ML platforms have demonstrated a tremendous ability to deliver highly predictive outcomes before they happen, resulting in optimizing operations and delivering material cost savings. It is satisfying to see the growing application of advanced technologies across the pulp and paper industry. In addition, we are now seeing compelling use case studies which should convince industry executives of the benefits of jumping into the Industry 4.0 world.  Good luck with your own operational issues, stay safe, and keep the sheet on the reel.

Chris Luettgen - ProcessMiner

Dr. Chris Luettgen
Georgia Tech

Professor of the Practice, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering College of Engineering; Associate Director, Pulp and Paper Renewable Bioproducts Institute; Director, Georgia Tech Pulp and Paper Engineering, Undergraduate Certificate Program and Foundation

Dr. Luettgen’s research focus is on relevant areas of need for the pulp and paper industry – both in continuously improving existing technologies and in transformational research.  Specific areas of research include improved operational excellence of pulp/paper mill technologies; recycled fiber and global wastepaper sourcing; renewable cellulosic feedstock such as bio-based replacements of petro-based products and alternatively sourced bio materials; nanocellulose fibril and crystal applications for enhanced product performance; tissue manufacturing; and big data analytics and predictive process control.