Whether you refer to it as smart manufacturing or Industry 4.0, one thing is clear: This emerging—and evolving—field is here to stay. With heralded benefits like improved productivity, efficiency, and quality across production, smart manufacturing allows enhanced innovation at lower costs. Smart manufacturing also benefits engineers and manufacturing workers who have strong data analytics, automation, and digital transformation skills: It gives them a unique opportunity to grow into new and exciting roles that likely offer more prestige and an increase in pay to boot.
Professional Training for Smart Manufacturing
But the practice of using simulation and modeling to improve production systems requires adequate training. Manufacturing and process plants are complex systems, and the virtual tools available to help with smart manufacturing initiatives are equally sophisticated. With new technologies emerging at a rapid-fire pace, it can be challenging, especially for career professionals, to keep up and understand which ones are most relevant to their production environment.
It’s not enough to just know what smart manufacturing or virtual commissioning is. You need to know where you can go to acquire the vital skills necessary to construct and effectively harness a digital twin to drive the process improvements you seek. So, where can professional engineers and others working in the manufacturing field find the continuing education and training opportunities required to stay current?
Learning by Doing
Effectively applying Industry 4.0 techniques requires both technological and analytical competencies. Unfortunately, these skills may not have been covered back when you received your degree. They may not have even existed yet.
Colleges and Universities
Today, most engineering programs offer basic coursework in automation and analytics, at a minimum. At institutions from Northwestern to the University of West Florida, engineering and computer science departments are developing relevant classes based on industry guidance and the latest trends. The offerings are varied, but such smart manufacturing classes and seminars help tomorrow’s engineers understand the more data-driven approaches that can bolster traditional engineering methods to improve processes and workflows. They provide current students and recent graduates with at least a working knowledge of how tools like data analytics, algorithms, and digital twins can facilitate innovation and improvement.
Learning Factories for Smart Manufacturing
Such classes offer students a taste of Industry 4.0. But more prestigious programs may also offer students access to “learning factories.” These full-scale training environments simulate a working manufacturing or process plant for both training and research purposes. Industry has successfully leveraged such learning factories in automotive and pharmaceutical manufacturing to drive process improvements. There is even an annual Learning Factories conference, last held at the Technische Universität Braunschweig, Germany, that provides novel insights into what such holistic models, simulating everything from the shop floor to the top floor, can offer the manufacturing industry today and in the future.
Learning factories at universities like Purdue University and Technische Universität München in Germany offer students the opportunity to gain competencies in the latest technologies in a true learning-by-doing format. Penn State’s Bernard M. Gordon Learning Factory has completed nearly 3,000 projects for more than 620 industry sponsors, providing an unparalleled opportunity for students to apply smart manufacturing concepts to real-world problems.
Remote Learning Opportunities
Unfortunately, career engineers, plant managers, and other manufacturing workers may not have the time, money, or inclination to pursue another degree. And not all companies will have access to a learning factory where manufacturing workers can learn about emerging technologies. That said, some programs welcome career professionals back to campus for a few weeks to achieve certification in digital transformation, virtual commissioning, or smart manufacturing for production applications. There are also a variety of remote options available for training and professional development when it comes to Industry 4.0.
For those looking for an introduction to this brave new world of manufacturing, several popular education platforms, including Coursera and Coursalytics, have a wide range of affordable classes available. These offerings tend to be more basic than what you might find at the university level, but they are often a good place to start. They can give busy professionals the background necessary to keep up with the space without having to invest significant time and money. They can also direct you to the technologies and applications best suited to your plant’s current needs.
Professional Development Certification
For those wanting a deeper dive, there are also opportunities to achieve professional development certification in Industry 4.0 in a virtual learning environment. Several high-profile universities offer such courses, often tailored to either executives or those working on the factory floor. MIT, for example, offers a 10-week program, where, for four to six hours a week, you can learn more about how to build the data-driven models to help make process improvements.
There are many ways to develop the competencies you need to apply smart manufacturing technologies. With a little time and research, you can find the path that works best for you.
Growing with the Field
Continuing education and professional development are critical to the success of companies. Manufacturing professionals also need education and development opportunities to have successful careers. Yet, companies often place continuing education on the back burner, where it languishes because there isn’t time or money for it. This is the wrong approach. With technology advancing at breakneck speed, companies that want to be successful must ensure that working professionals have the ability not only to hone their existing skills, but to learn new ones.
Manufacturing is an industry built on evolution. To stay competitive, engineers and other manufacturing workers need to stay agile, educated, and equipped. Professional development isn’t just a box to be checked on your annual performance review. It’s an opportunity to learn the skills required to evolve with the field as a whole, especially as it moves to Industry 4.0.
Luckily, there are a variety of ways to become more fluent in the latest automation and smart manufacturing techniques. That diversity in offerings means there is never an excuse not to develop new competencies to help you stay current. Those who take the time to learn those new skills, as well as the managers who support them in such endeavors, will never find themselves obsolete, no matter where technology takes us in the future.