The adoption of AR has increased sharply during the Covid-19 pandemic. Employers now need to consider how this can help recruit and hire employees as well as solve technical issues.

Where are all the workers? That’s the question many manufacturing executives are asking themselves right now, as labor shortages and skills gaps hamper their post-pandemic recovery ambitions.

New ideas and bold thinking are urgently needed, given the magnitude of these issues. Labor shortages are increasing in the European Union and manufacturing companies are reporting that it is becoming increasingly difficult to hire. At the same time, 79% are reporting skills shortages, according to a 2020 report by tech industry trade body Digital Europe. “New graduates lack professional skills. The more experienced have been trained in a world of pre-digital and traditional manufacturing, ”write the authors of the report.

The pressure is on manufacturing companies to provide better and more satisfying jobs, and to equip workers with the skills and training they need to perform them. Augmented Reality (AR) technology could be an important part of this picture, but only if employee experience is central to all implementation plans.

The adoption of AR – which overlays digital information on physical objects and environments in the workplace and supports remote collaboration – has seen a surge in the past year. During the pandemic, it has proven its value in helping businesses overcome the challenges of remote working and social distancing in industrial environments. Now, employers should see RPL as a way to attract new employees to their organizations and to retrain and develop existing workers.

So how can employers put AR to work in a people-centered way that offers the best chance for business success? In my opinion, they should always start with a problem, pain point or challenge. Anything that frustrates employees in their day-to-day work, or slows them down, should be the baseline. In other words, when it comes to creating an augmented reality experience, manufacturing managers may ask, “What should I build?” Or “How should I build it?” These questions are for later. To begin with, the most important question should be: “Why should I build it?” ”

For example, employees may have difficulty installing or operating a particular machine in the factory. Work instructions, provided by AR, could guide them through the best approach, step by step. When creating products, they can use AR to refer to the original CAD files to understand which components and parts they should use and how they fit together. Likewise, service engineers working in the field could use AR to collaborate with colleagues at headquarters on how best to correct a previously unseen defect with a customer product.

In each of these cases, and many more, AR solves a problem that could otherwise undermine workers’ time, energy, and patience. But the involvement of frontline workers shouldn’t end with reporting these pain points. In my experience, the best results are achieved when employees continue to be consulted and involved as the project progresses and their needs, wants and concerns are met at every step.

For example, employees should be included in the definition of the use case. Identifying a pain point is just the start. Companies must then create complete use cases that not only address a single problem, but aim to improve the way all workflows are executed. The best way to do this is to follow employees and hear directly from them at what stages of a job or task they tend to struggle. Let them tell you where improvements are needed.

Likewise, when businesses prepare to invest in AR significantly, they need to be sure they’ve asked the right questions up front. Bad decisions at this point could easily frustrate employees, forcing them to revert to old habits and practices. Are hardware and software performing the way employees need them, for example? Is the technology easy and comfortable to use, allowing them to consume the information they need, when they need it? Do the proposed hardware formats work well with hands-free tasks? Does the proposed software platform have the potential to support other AR experiences as new use cases emerge? The involvement of employees in the testing of proposed technological solutions will be vital.

The importance of content to AR cannot be overstated. After all, this is what is used to increase reality! In industrial use cases, the content may very well take the form of CAD or PLM data, which contains key engineering information and knowledge about how products are built, configured, and operated. Work instructions, on the other hand, will need to be supplemented by the tacit knowledge held in the minds of experienced workers who perform given tasks every day and know the best ways to accomplish them. Data from learning management systems may also be involved. Again, observing employees in their work allows them to point out any data or information gaps in the content delivered to them through AR. In short, what are the questions they want AR answered for them?

Finally, there is the value of soliciting user feedback. While many leadership teams will naturally want to see Key Performance Indicator (KPI) improvements on the productivity, throughput, and waste of their AR use, they are unlikely to follow through unless feedback from employees are given priority. Factory work is changing all the time, especially when new machinery is introduced or new products are being built. Gathering feedback from frontline employees and acting on it is the best way to ensure that higher-level KPIs are met – and that they continue to be met as the work progresses.

It’s a real job of heart and mind, solving real problems for real people. But as a manufacturing company searches for new people to hire, the fact that they are using AR to improve the work of existing employees is great publicity for their employer brand. But more than that, it empowers the people it already employs, increasing their abilities, skills and satisfaction so that they are more likely to stay on board.

Sam Murley is Global Director of Digital Transformation for Augmented Reality Products at PTC.

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