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No Plan B – COVID-19 Exposes Technical Education’s Shortcomings

Dean Steadman, Education Program Manager, FANUC America
By Dean Steadman Education Program Manager, FANUC America

The recent coronavirus pandemic has caused the closure of many manufacturing companies and technical schools, leaving them in the position of having to implement a plan B. However, for technical skills training, a comprehensive plan B is hard to find with the move to fully remote learning exposing some of the flaws in our current setup.

With widespread stay-at-home orders, and to contain the spread of COVID-19, many manufacturers, unless deemed essential, have closed shop and sent workers home. The resulting loss in productivity has forced companies and teachers to utilize the time to provide or continue with remote e-learning.

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Some companies involved in the equipment supply chain that is used to manufacture medical devices and PPE equipment report they are struggling to meet the enormous demand and are focusing all their efforts in ramping up production. The larger productivity and employment picture looks a little less optimistic, especially in the short term, with millions of Americans filing for unemployment benefits. Many of these workers have been in the service sector, particularly in the gig economy.

Concerns at Technical High Schools

Technical high schools are also concerned as they strive to train and deliver our technical workforce. This year’s cohorts are entering a highly-competitive job market due to some companies in certain manufacturing sectors ceasing or slowing operations. A dearth of job opportunities could affect future technical training enrollment and compound the skills gap in this country. This negative impact on America’s quest to develop a globally competitive future manufacturing workforce would be devastating and set back the efforts made thus far.

In recent years, OEMs have attempted to make products easier to use, easier to diagnose and repair, faster and more efficient, with better reliability, all with the goal of making manufacturers more capable to produce better products more efficiently. Even with the use of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to predict failure and monitor OEE (overall equipment efficiency), the task just became more difficult.

Implementing advanced manufacturing equipment has its obvious barriers, such as cost, but there are hidden issues as well, such as not being able to find operators with the right skill sets and knowledge. Special training is required for these workers, and it’s the training and transfer of knowledge that has been highlighted as a potential stopgap, even before this pandemic forced us to make the switch to digital delivery.

With moving technical training online, teachers report the biggest obstacle is students’ accessing adequate equipment. Some students’ PCs don’t have the ability to run sophisticated CAD/CAM software or simulation packages. Some students are only able to work on iPads or Chromebooks; worse yet, some lack or have limited access to PCs due to various socio-economic reasons.

As a result, instructors must be flexible in their delivery of course materials. Some students can be granted access to their colleges’ computer resources, but issues with distribution of software and licensing remain a problem for IT departments. Cloud services and SaaS (Software as a Service) are a viable option for some schools, but products for industry are in short supply.

Internet Access Also a Problem

For some households, Internet access continues to be problematic because they lack the speed required for online video conferencing or because they simply can’t afford it. Thankfully, on March 13, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called on broadband and telephone service providers to promote connectivity for Americans impacted by the disruptions caused by the coronavirus. In order to ensure that Americans do not lose their broadband or telephone connectivity as a result of these exceptional circumstances, he asked them to take the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, which you can access by clicking here.

Because many companies offer a certificate that is based upon training of their products, the industry lacks a cohesive approach and nationalized recognition system that schools can rely upon. Obviously, there are accreditation organizations that can write a standard or administer a proctored exam, such as NIMS or Nocti. Industry curriculum is not usually tailored to the academic semester and rarely integrates with a school’s LMS (Learning Management System). Third-party curriculum providers could be a solution here, but keeping content up to date presents a problem when new products or technologies become available. This is an area where we still need a lot of emphasis since a training program, certificate or certification is nothing without the curriculum tied to it. The ability to learn also requires repetition and explanation, and access to this unfettered knowledge is expensive and time consuming. There are, however, lots of resources available free of charge that instructors and students can tap into for content outside of the regular lesson plan and theory, and many companies employ staff whose job it is to act as a conduit between the academic world and industry. I am one of them, working for FANUC in the CNC division.

Hands-On Training a Necessity

Technical training’s main problem during our current state of social distancing is that at some point students need to have hands-on experiences. Whether it is programming, setting up, and machining a part in a CNC machine, wiring and coding an automation cell with robots and PLCs, or welding two pieces of metal together, you will need to visit the lab. Social distancing here presents a problem. Some colleges are looking into, and waiting for clarification on, whether hands on training such as machining and welding can take place at allotted time schedules with reduced numbers to abide by social distancing rules. Some colleges are exempt from the stay-at-home orders and are looking to let some students back in for labs under the condition of having no more than four students physically in the lab. The situation is very fluid, and instructors are still very concerned that there will be no more lab time for the rest of the semester and end of semester projects will not be completed to enforce interpretation and application.

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With moving technical training online, teachers report the biggest obstacle is students’ accessing adequate equipment.

The more fortunate students are those who have already done some manual coding and attained some machine experience. Even more fortunate are students who can use CAD/CAM systems remotely as well as run simulations and metrology and GD&T online.

Ultimately, remote working and online tuitions are going to be more the norm moving forward, but it is causing some issues for instructors to monitor the work and address students’ issues. The widespread pandemic was not the only cause for migration to remote working and the utilization of technology, but it has greatly accelerated the necessity to make this jump and will no doubt have changed our mindset permanently.

Learning from the Crisis

We will recover from this crisis and we will learn. Moving to a more digital society will have some benefits with regards to less movement of people, more efficiency, and the exploitation of technology to make us more productive. This is probably a once in a lifetime event, and I hope we all learn from it and prepare for a plan B should we ever need to implement a major shift in a short space of time in the future.

About the author: Dean Steadman has worked for FANUC for 16 years in both the United Kingdom and the United States. He began his career as an apprentice toolmaker in London, England and then worked at a machine tool builder over 25 years ago. He has worked throughout the product manufacturing process, from design, build, service, installation and management. Steadman has been in his current position at FANUC as the education program manager for six years.

To see FANUC’s training available, including online options, please click here.

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