Learning Factories: Empowering Workers and Plants for the Future of Work

Learning Factories: Empowering Workers and Plants for the Future of Work
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by Sanjeev Kapoor 23 May 2019

During recent years, industrial organizations are increasingly deploying digital technologies in order to automate and optimize their processes. In particular, in modern production shopfloors, technologies like Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and the Industrial Internet of Things, are combined with Cyber Physical Systems and Smart Objects like robots, drones and autonomous guided vehicles, in order to reduce laborious processes, to enable data-driven optimizations and to increase the efficiency of production systems. The deployment of these technologies signals a paradigm shift for the way processes are carried out, which reflects directly on the way workers engage in production tasks. In the scope of the emerging digitally enabled shopfloors, workers will no longer be carrying out labor intensive tasks, as these will be undertaken by robots and other forms of automation. Rather workers will be the supervisors of the new automated processes: they will oversee the operations of robots and other smart automation systems with a view to ensuring that they operate gracefully and in-line with production plans. As a result, while automation will inevitably replace several jobs, it will also create others that will revolve around the development, deployment and operation of digital technologies for industrial environments. This shift is commonly associated with the future of work in the scope of the fourth of the industrial revolution (Industry 4.0).

While automation systems increase the flexibility of production systems and processes, humans are still by far the most flexible resource in modern production plants. Nevertheless, for their successful engagement in production tasks workers will have to acquire the skills needed for understanding, operating and fully leveraging emerging production systems. This asks for significant investments in reskilling and upskilling processes that will provide workers with a proper set of digital skills as needed for their effective participation in the future of work. Likewise, industrial enterprises acknowledge the important of lifelong learning processes that will enable workers to keep up with the evolution of digital technologies and digitally enabled production systems.


The “Learning Factories” Concepts

To facilitate the reskilling and upskilling processes of workers in the manufacturing sector, a new learning and training concept has been introduced and is gradually implemented by industrial organizations: The “Learning Factory”. Learning factories are characterized by their ability to continuously plan and execute “on the job” training activities i.e. activities that are typically executed close to the production environment based on a hands-on approach.  This is because manufacturers acknowledge that learning by doing is the best way for industry workers to acquaint themselves with the details and the operation of digitally enabled production systems.

Training processes in a learning factory are quite different from conventional classroom teaching and professional training activities. One of the main differences is that they take place in real-life production facilities and involve the actual equipment that workers should learn to use. In practice “hands on training” activities in the scope of a learning factories take place either in testbeds environments or in pilot production lines that are usually built close to the actual production lines. In some cases, they can also take place in the actual production line, especially when they involve knowledge transfer from other workers in real time i.e. during the occurrence of the production task.


Learning Systems and Technology Enablers

Learning factories are empowered by advanced training systems and technologies, which form the basis for modern Industry4.0 training and reskilling programs. Such systems include:


Industry 4.0 opens up a whole new range of opportunities for industrial organizations. It creates however new obligations as well. One of these is to establish new approaches for the training and lifelong learning of their workforce. Fortunately, digital technologies like AR/VR can also support such new approaches. The result should be happier, more engaged and more productive workers, which are ready for the fourth industrial revolution and the future of work.

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