The Skills Gap is Slowing Digital Transformation—Here’s How to Fix it

Industry leaders are concerned about a workforce that is unprepared for the latest automation, software tools and digital workflows

(Image Courtesy of Autodesk)

The digital transformation of American industry is well underway. Throughout the manufacturing sector, companies large and small have jumped on the automation and Industry 4.0 bandwagon with investments in automated capital equipment and its digital infrastructure.  

The Association for Advancing Automation (A3) reports that 12,305 robots were sold in the second quarter of 2022 for a total value of $585 million, a whopping 25 percent increase over the same period in 2021. The only period that performed better was the first quarter of 2022, which posted a record $646 million in revenue. Research firm Fortune Business Insights predicts the global digital transformation market will reach a value of more than $3.5 billion by 2028 with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 22.1 percent. 

This considerable spending on hardware and software is done with the expectation that it will deliver value, competitiveness and return on investment. But for all the time, effort and expense dedicated to implementing the latest in automation and digital technology, there is a key ingredient missing from the mix. 

That missing link is properly trained people. 

Between the great resignation, quiet quitting and a relatively low unemployment rate of 3.7 percent (August 2022), manufacturers are having a difficult time finding and training enough workers to get the most out of their technology investments. And the trend towards reshoring will only add to the pressure.  

Scale and Scope 

In an effort to address these issues, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) teamed up with software developer Autodesk to conduct a survey of manufacturing leaders. What they found was a problem so widespread it could dampen the adoption of automation and digital transformation for years to come.  

“At this pivotal moment, many industry leaders are wondering: Where do we find these workers and what skills should they have,” says Simon Leigh, senior manager of education strategy at Autodesk, and co-author of the report. 

“We hear from our customers about skill gaps and the types of technologies they use in their companies. The technology is being driven by industry wanting to be agile, have better productivity, profitability and differentiation,” says Leigh.  

Indeed, the technology being driven by business requirements is moving faster than we can train the workforce. 

The research found near unanimous agreement among stakeholders in business, education and government that the problem needs to be urgently addressed, and that any fix will require close partnership among manufacturers, academia and technology developers.  

The solution that ASME and Autodesk have landed on requires a two-prong approach: evolving the way we educate engineers and technicians for next generation manufacturing; and adjusting the roles of engineers, technicians and machine operators to increase collaboration among these critical positions.   

“We really had to ask ourselves and those in the [engineering] field, what is next? What are the jobs of the future and the skills needed for those jobs? And most importantly, how and who do we train for the positions that don’t exist yet,” says Ashley Huderson, ASME’s director of engineering education and outreach. 

“The ASME sees several sides of this conversation. In talking to students and professors and understanding how to produce the most viable and well qualified students for the workforce, and then talking to our professional constituents in industry and government to address the challenges they see coming down the pike,” says Huderson. 

The report focused on three common roles in manufacturing companies that will see the most notable changes in terms of how Industry 4.0 will alter workflows and methodology. Those roles are Machinist, Mechanical Engineer and Manufacturing Engineer. 

Across all three roles, 90 percent of all survey respondents said that teaching deeper Design for Manufacturing (DFM) knowledge was the most impactful way for academia to develop the future manufacturing workforce. What this means in a practical setting is that workers in all three of these roles will need more collaboration with each other and learn more of each other’s jobs to improve productivity, efficiency and time-to-market. 

“Interdisciplinary work in engineering, and the skillsets and requirements and curriculum to be classified as a mechanical or manufacturing engineer, is going to change,” says Huderson. “We had better understand the need for exposure to different skill sets that may fall outside of what historically has been in the curriculum for specific engineering types.”  

She says industry is seeing new titles, new definitions and different types of engineers that are evolving from the use of technology. “The curriculums should have a lot of overlap and that interdisciplinary work is important to create well rounded, viable engineers that are able to better understand not only their specialty but how their specialty engages with other aspects of the engineering process,” says Huderson. 

Essential Changes to Three Roles in Industry 4.0 

Mechanical Engineers 

  • They will continue to improve upon engineering designs and become more involved in manufacturing implementation and processing production data to improve designs for manufacturability. 
  • 60 percent of industry believe interdisciplinary engineering knowledge will increase for mechanical engineers over the next five to 10 years. This was consistent across small, medium, and large manufacturers. 
  • Continued emphasis on “soft” skills like problem solving and communication skills to complement their focus on software tool functionality, data analytics, programming, and smart and sustainable design techniques. 

Manufacturing Engineers 

  • Manufacturing engineers will become even more interdisciplinary as this role blends skills with both mechanical engineers and CNC machinists. 
  • 72 percent of respondents believe human-robotic interaction will increase and 74 percent believe automation will increase for this role. 
  • Like mechanical engineers, manufacturing engineers will need enhanced communication skills and will be expected to incorporate additive manufacturing and use artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML), digital twins, and data analytics to improve throughput and efficiency. 

CNC Machinists 

  • CNC machinists’ roles will evolve dramatically, from a CNC operator to an engineering technician who programs CNC machines and, over time, take on other manufacturing engineering functions. 
  • The factory environments in which future CNC machinists will work will become more complex, using cobots, 3D printers, AI/ML and multi-axis machines. They will need greater “mental dexterity” (such as programming) and productive collaboration with engineering teams. 
  • This role will require workers who are increasingly fluent in computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) software. Better programming skills will enable machinists to increase their use of technology such as five-axis machines (65 percent), additive/hybrid manufacturing (66 percent), and robots/cobots (65 percent). 

The report also found trends that will span manufacturing regardless of role: 

Communication is paramount: an increased focus on exchanging data between groups of people through cloud collaboration. Digital transformation of roles will shape communication as workflows change. Some 86 percent of respondents agreed that there is a need for a collaborative design process between all three disciplines. 

Certifications show specialization: Academia will supplement degrees with certifications. Degrees will serve as the foundation, while certifications will showcase specialized skills—86 percent of academics embrace less reliance on degrees and welcome more specialized certifications developed in partnership with industry, while 84 percent of all survey respondents believe employers and academia should partner on new types of certification programs based on employer needs. 

Academia embraces emerging technology: Technologies including generative design (GD), AI/ML, augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR) will be pervasive—80 percent of academics believe GD will be an important skillset and 67 percent believe AI or ML will be an important product design skill for mechanical engineers. 

CNC machining is changing rapidly: 65 percent of industry believe use of robotics will increase and 62 percent believe use of programming skills to program smart products will increase. 

No more “throwing it over the wall”: Mechanical engineers need to have applied knowledge throughout the manufacturing process, rather than designing a part and then leaving it to machinists to sort out the procedures required—79 percent of industry believe electrical and software engineering will increase while 77 percent believe system engineering skills will increase.