Manufacturing AUTOMATION

New tools for training: Digital, continuous learning

December 17, 2020
By William Valedis

With technology frequently in flux, today’s workforce requires ongoing digital learning that prioritizes a proactive versus reactive approach

Photo: triloks/Getty Images

High-impact events, such as accidents or major breakdowns, temporarily elevate training and information management needs – but reacting to these events through one-time training is not ideal.

The long-term cost when we do not address the root cause of issues impacts every business. Think of current training philosophies like an iceberg: we react quickly to what we see on the surface and don’t evaluate what lies beneath in terms of business impact.

There are serious questions to be answered when determining whether the return on our investment has had any impact or not. Was the training content developed in concert with a current employee skills matrix? Did the training meet the needs of our employees?

How was the training balanced to our needs in terms of lecture/practical? Did the training result in measurable improvements in operation or maintenance efficiencies? Have MTTR and DT decreased? Does the training require follow-up?


Proactively planning for employee training and critical information management has heretofore been a simple exercise of picking items from a menu of readily available training offerings or products.

It is time to rethink how critical information is distributed and adapt to the new reality – that the workforce must be continually updated and trained in our new world.

The current training approach is usually misaligned with specific employee and organizational needs and values, and typically results in employee frustration and higher operational costs. Implementing any training as a one-time event also diminishes the life cycle value of the investment, since knowledge fades away or disappears after the project is complete, or due to employee turnover.

New employees often don’t have access to a formal onboarding processes, leading to a lack of accurate information about specific areas concerning employee health and safety, as well as company policies and procedures.

Some organizations have adopted ISO standards on how certain procedures are to be followed, but little is done in the areas of maintenance troubleshooting, operator functions and safety, which would benefit from push notifications on critical information.

Training materials in manufacturing facilities range from being loosely organized and outdated to inaccurate or totally unavailable despite being deemed critical to the operation. Perhaps there is fear, misunderstanding or miscalculations about costs over benefits of training.

It is time to rethink how critical information is distributed and adapt to the new reality – that the workforce must be continually updated and trained in our new world. To do so, we must move from instructor-led training to blended, digitized ongoing learning.

Training myths

Myth: One week of training is adequate
Reality: One week of training to last a machine’s lifecycle – typically 10 years – is inadequate, since we know every organization experiences employee turnover. Repeating OEM training is also costly since many OEMs are focused on selling their products and training is one of those “optional” items the customer may or may not buy.

Myth: Available training will meet our needs
Reality: Without understanding current employee skill levels, it would be guessing at best to try to hit the training needs target. In many organizations, skills matrixes do not even exist, so evaluating needs is not possible.

Available training works in several scenarios. For example, organization XYZ just installed a new-generation PLC model 1000 and not a single technician has ever worked with this new model. An OEM class that introduces the model 1000 PLC would be a good choice here. But would this OEM model 1000 PLC course address all training needs? No.

Understanding the current skill level is important to set a baseline level of expertise. Knowing what is required after the project is complete helps us to measure the skills gap. OEM training or “off-the-shelf” training is primarily focused on product features, and not specific needs.

Third-party training is designed to address the designer’s objectives, which may or may not be your objectives.

For liability reasons, large OEMs will not customize training content to your needs unless a specific waiver of liability documents is signed, which is rare.

Myth: Classroom training meets our needs
Reality: During the last decade, we have witnessed tremendous acceleration in areas of learning using technology, but not many organizations are using that technology.

Traditional classroom training should be supplemented or replaced with an enduring learning approach. Today, people are accustomed to a social/collaborative and personalized learning environment that is available when/where it is needed. Relevant content about maintenance, operations and training can easily be searched and used immediately.

Information management myths

Myth: We have a document library
Reality: The information in these libraries is often outdated. Paper information cannot be searched and stored information is not always available when/where it is needed. Updates are manual and time consuming.

Myth: Digitizing information is expensive
Reality: If we calculate the number of employees times the amount of time spent looking for required information over the project lifecycle, this exercise will be convincing enough that digitizing and automating the distribution of information is cost effective.

I once witnessed an operator who was unable to locate a machine parameter backup file. A support engineer contacted the OEM only to find out the OEM had gone out of business. The parameter file then had to be re-created while the machine was out of production for two days.

Another time, a worker performed a task without the latest version of the task’s safety procedure. The information never made it to the operations binder box, where all the safety procedures were kept.

When the worker performed the task, they sustained what was thankfully a recoverable injury.

Digitized training should be front-loaded before a project begins, with annual sessions thereafter to provide refreshers or to update new content. Photo: KINITO

The cost of reacting to needs

Processing power, big data, cloud, AI, IoT, mobility, robotics, PLC, drives, CNC, vision – all of these technological advances and others will continue to put pressure on training and keeping the workforce informed with critical information in an automated process.

To compete in an interconnected global market, Canadian companies are looking to fill a huge void of skilled workers in many disciplines – and this is a huge problem when the talent pool is constantly draining due to retirement, not enough young people entering the industry, and loss of workers by way of emigration.

Based on my working experience all over the world, technical training in Canada is not always taken seriously compared to other developed countries.

Today, organizations rely on a variety of technologies to handle sales, infrastructure, HR, procurement, manufacture, distribution and customer service. As technology dependence and the skills gap are increasing, our knowledge base – our greatest asset – is shrinking.

But it is also unrealistic to expect workers to become competent in every technology we install in plants, particularly when it comes to maintenance.

A real-life example

Some time ago, I arrived at a paper mill that was down, losing production due to a PLC network problem. I was asked to see the plant manager before I investigated the problem, which was unusual. When I got to the plant manager’s office, he asked me to report back the name of the “incompetent shift person that was not capable of fixing the problem.”

After getting the plant up and running, I asked the electrical group how much training they had received on the PLC and installed network – and the answer was zero. The amount of time taken to fix the network problem is inversely proportional to the amount of time invested in training – so in this case with zero training, the time required to fix the problem is, in theory, infinite.

The front-line workers keeping the manufacturing processes and machines running must be literate in specific technologies. We must be selective as to what training and/or information is critical for each functional group. We need to understand that learning is ongoing, not a single event.

The cost of training and information sharing can be initially a single event, but the tools used during the initial phase must be available throughout the intended lifecycle.

Steps to control costs

1. Working from a skills level list helps to identify the current skill level. This first step is crucial in establishing a baseline.

2. Not everyone needs every training course or information type to carry out their job responsibilities. Electricians, for example, may need technology training that is relevant to the areas in which they are assigned. Putting all electricians through all the PLC courses that are installed in your plant may not be such a great idea. Putting all employees through safety policy training, on the other hand, is appropriate.

3. Packaging costs vary from paper production to mobile/online, with the latter resulting in higher development costs. The added benefit of mobile/online content packaging is that it provides valuable data as to where each employee stands in terms of learning their specific assigned material, difficulties in learning certain content and sharing feedback on important issues that impact productivity. Course reassignments, cross-training needs and more can be handled with data and reports.

4. Development of courseware or information packages must not be developed in isolation. Development must include key management stakeholders during development and reviews, to ensure the content meets the employee and organizations future objectives. One hour of mobile/online-ready learning/information content takes about 100 hours to produce. Mobile/online content development costs can range between $8,000-$16,000 per hour of content delivery – but keep in mind how much material can be delivered in one hour.

5. Paper-based content can be handled via presentations in a classroom and this involves instructor and facility costs, as well as the cost of the employee’s time.

Creating training content

Here are some ideas to help plan training and critical information sharing.

Operational information

  • Develop guides on how to operate machines, or how to perform tasks
  • Provide information critical to operational procedures and safety
  • Use a blended mobile/online method that survives the process, machine or project lifecycle
  • Push updates immediately after changes

Maintenance information

  • Upload application backups for PLC/DCS and other critical devices on secure server
  • Develop guides on how to perform certain maintenance tasks
  • Provide information critical to maintenance procedures and safety

Safety procedures

  • Develop guides for how to perform tasks safely
  • Deploy safety policy and procedures in a secure cloud space

Disaster recovery

  • Create plans and backups for a catastrophic event to address loss of valuable software, critical recipe data, product parameter lists, drawings, etc.


William Valedis is director, support systems development, at KINITO Systems Inc. and a member of Manufacturing AUTOMATION’s editorial advisory board.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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