Remote Viewing

August 20th, 2021 by Nathan Hobbs

The Industry Turns to Video and Online Content for Training

By Drew Vass

In an industry that relies on hands-on, in-person training, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, teaching facilities became ghost towns. Arriving on the
heels of an extended labor shortage and temporary shutdowns, for human resource departments that silence was deafening.

“The pandemic really slowed down training systems and hands-on came to a halt,” says Neil Reddy, CEO of Manufacturing Skill Standards Council (MSSC), a nonprofit company that provides training programs for the manufacturing sector. “I was scared that we might even go out of business.”

Within a three-week period, Reddy says his company scrambled to take all of its learning programs online, in order to continue operating. But he suggests
that can be a little more complicated for fenestration companies. “Door and window manufacturers are very high-tech companies,” he says. “They’re making advanced products using composites. The technology behind some of these manufacturing facilities … there’s a lot that goes into them … They’re going to need workers who have these skills, but that all came to a grinding halt.”

Like Reddy’s company, the pandemic forced door and window companies to shift their training programs online at breakneck speeds. Adding to that
sense of urgency, “We all knew that training wasn’t a place to cut back because it can have such an effect on safety, quality and productivity,” says Larry Johnson, vice president of sales for North American fenestration at Quanex. Though there was also a need to train new employees as quickly as possible, skimping on the process wasn’t an option, he says.

“The present circumstances and labor shortages have created a need for more frequent training, as Quanex and our customers bring on new employees,” Johnson says. “We’re all eager to get people up and running, but we shouldn’t sacrifice training in the process. We need to give new employees the tools they need to not only do their jobs but to do them safely.”

Evolution of Processes

Temporarily “paralyzed by the circumstances,” Johnson says the door and window industries scrambled. “Like everything else over the past year, we had to adapt and adapt quickly,” he says. “The way it’s always been done just wasn’t possible anymore … We all needed to take a step back and get creative in all facets of business, including training.”

Over the past year and a half, “I would say that we’ve learned that where there’s a will there’s a way,” adds Rick Trontvet, senior vice president of human resources for Marvin. “When COVID-19 restrictions were put into place, we quickly came to this understanding that we would really have to rely on technology and out-of-the-box thinking to get our workforce trained.”

But Not Too Out of the Box

In the years ahead of the pandemic, companies toyed with technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) for training purposes.
But with those ideas merely half baked, companies pursued other methods. Reddy says his organization migrated its certification programs for production technicians entirely to video and other online content, then added similar programs for material handling.

Gregg Miner, senior vice president and global JEM Leader at Jeld-Wen, say his company went all in on the concept of going digital by prescribing to a service known as Gemba Academy, an online training resource that provides around 700 videos with embedded tests. The company has contracted for all of its 23,000 employees worldwide to have unlimited access and early indications show that people are receptive to the idea, Miner says. Recently the company is measuring around 2,000 to 3,000 unique uses per month, he says. Going forward, “We can take from their existing menu of content and create individual learning paths,” he says.

Following Tendencies

In a time when many turn to YouTube for technical and how-to content in their personal lives, Trontvet says it was only natural that companies lean into streaming amid the pandemic. Johnson says that at Quanex the company’s technical representatives worked to connect with customers in the field in order to show them hands-on processes. One employee turned his dining room table into a quasi-studio. “He gathered his resources and created an application table in his living room where he could show customers proper techniques and best practices,” Johnson says.

Marvin was already working to deploy digital experiences, Trontvet says, and “In many ways, we were just in the nick of time,” he adds. “This just drew us
into a deeper use of these tools.”

That migration began “because the world is so digital,” he says. “We want our employees’ experiences at work to match what they have at home and
elsewhere.” Now, as companies look to regain their workforces, those changes are increasingly important for luring in fresh talent, he and others suggest. Amid a labor shortage and pandemic, “It’s really become a candidates’ market,” Trontvet says, making it even more important to reach them on their terms. “It’s not just our prerogative to hire whomever we want,” he says. “It’s really a two-way process and we have to do things to improve the digital experience.”

Combined with the use of remote work and the success of video conferencing amid the pandemic, “We’ve latched onto this concept for remote experiences,” Trontvet says. Now, some companies are exploring the option for manufacturing. At Marvin, trainers deployed headsets to connect with trainees in noisy work environments amid social distancing. By adding cameras and connecting to the internet, Jeld-Wen stretched that same concept to remote distances. Miner says the company explored the use of cameras for virtual walkthroughs and found them to be extremely effective in plant settings. In a concept the company refers to as “Gemba Walks,” employees now tour manufacturing facilities and review processes virtually, facilitating group inspections. “In the age of COVID-19, you couldn’t travel and you had social distancing,” Miner says. “The next best thing was to do this virtually.” Now he performs reviews for as many as five to six plants per week, “from wherever I am—whether I’m sitting at home or in the office,” he says. The technique has proven so effective that Jeld-Wen plans to continue even after the pandemic is over, but Miner says the same methods will eventually be applied to training and may come to rely on AR and VR technologies. “That’s exactly where this will go,” he says, pointing to other industries that have already deployed those methods.

Trontvet says his company has already deployed a “scaled down version” of VR in its processes for onboard training. And after deploying virtual showrooms for customers amid the pandemic, he says the company is now toying with the same idea for manufacturing.

Reddy says his company is working on deploying VR for its programs. “It’s very cool and neat,” he says. “There are virtual-reality based training programs that are quite good … the younger trainees really like it, because they use these headsets for their games.”

But even as AR and VR show promise for sharing perspectives over the internet, one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear, many suggest, is that nothing is yet capable of replacing hands-on experience.

“Manufacturing training is a little like healthcare training in that the hands-on components are critical,” Reddy says. The reasons are obvious, Trontvet says. “We need to ensure that employees are confident and competent using the tools and equipment that they’ll need for their work,” he says. “That’s something we still need to prioritize doing live, in a real, in-person, hands-on environment. You can only do so much learning to use a saw or other equipment via videos. You have to be able to touch and feel and learn how to interact with those tools in order to learn to do so safely.”

That’s not to say that exploration of AR and VR won’t lead to more novel ideas for learning. As those connective technologies improve, they’re expected to open doors to more effective uses, experts suggest. In the meantime, “Now we’re looking at training our workforce from a more blended approach,” Trontvet says, between in-person and digital.

With the pandemic subsiding and more workers returning to the workplace, “It’s great that we now have these virtual options, and we continue to use them,” Johnson says. “But we are happy to be back out in the field providing hands-on, in-person training once again.”

With the recent success of digital tools, it’s likely that the industry will deploy a hybrid approach going forward, in order to expedite training for as many new employees as possible. “The need to be flexible led to more online options that I think will be part of our lives forever going forward,” Johnson says.

By 2026, U.S.-based manufacturers need around four million new workers, Reddy says. Digital training will only help to stream those individuals into the workplace.

Drew Vass is the editor of [DWM] magazine.

To view the laid-in version of this article in our digital edition, CLICK HERE.

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