Augmented Reality Check

Multi-generational workforces powered by integrated communications technology will lead food manufacturing into a new era of productivity, writes Wiley’s Brandon Miller.

Brandon Miller

Changes in food industry work environments, work forces and technology will enable an exciting leap forward in open communication, collaboration and knowledge transfer.

This new era of transparent and immediate information may prove to be the most crucial key for businesses to survive in the near future.

For example, successful future food manufacturing businesses are likely to integrate Augmented Reality (AR) as an invaluable workplace communication and knowledge management tool.

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Mind the Generational Gap

The changing shape of the future workforce is one of the most significant challenges facing food manufacturing businesses and the design of food facilities.  Gen X, Y and Z are playing an increasingly important role in the future of food manufacturing.  The challenges here are that when combined with the experience of the Baby Boomer generation, a wide variety of working styles, preferences and knowledge exists.  This in turn creates challenges around communication and knowledge transfer.

For example, Baby Boomers are a bedrock of knowledge and expertise. Food manufacturing businesses rely on them to carry and deliver critical workloads and responsibilities.

Millennials (1980s) and more recently Gen Zs (2000s) are the industry’s cadets, trainees and graduates.  This sector of the workforce seeks more than just a job.  They seek careers that hold their attention, fulfil their ambitions and provide work-life balance. While Millennials are the first generation of “digital natives”, Gen-Zs are more tech-savvy, empowered and educated at the same age.

The traditional food manufacturing environment will not suit these workers. They will not be satisfied with, or productive in, the isolation of operating a single machine along a production line. They will be seeking enriched, purposeful jobs with flexibility, responsibility and control over their situation.

Trends in career pathing show the new generations are happy to job-hop, especially if they become unsatisfied with the culture and environment they currently work in. This creates a serious industry knowledge gap as younger workers are not staying in a position or workplace long enough to gain the deep knowledge that long tenured, veteran workers typically have.

This gap is widened by the trend of many to happily let information live in the cloud, on the net, and if in doubt, ‘Google it” when you need it. How many of us remember phone numbers and addresses like our parents and grandparents would have?

Yet it is this trend that may also prove to be the most significant ingredient to meeting and solving this challenge.

Hyper Connected Workforces

In the near future, workers will have instant and intuitive access to comprehensive stored and living knowledge via holographic computing solutions.  An example of this is Microsoft’s HoloLens, a hands-free, wearable device currently in development, which leverages AR technology.

It is technology like this that will optimise connection of the workforce with the environments they work in. This will unlock unprecedented levels of communication creating an organic and continuously improving culture of open engagement, knowledge transfer and situational learning.

Imagine being able to visually locate and communicate with anyone by use of a “holo-viewer” system that can see through objects like walls. Once connected, the worker would be able to interact with others as if they were standing right in front of them.  They could share what each other are seeing, have options to link in other workers as needed to complete tasks, share information and help each other without impediment.

If you are thinking this is still too sci-fi to believe, consider the advanced technology powering smart mobile devices and the increase in interactive experiences (including AR) already on offer. It will not be long before this technology is common place in food manufacturing environments.

These technologies will also enable a new wave of knowledge transfer.  For as long as there has been knowledge to pass on, there has been mentoring and learning. The legacy of the Baby Boomer generation and their knowledge and experience will be a defining factor for future workforces in food manufacturing environments. The challenge will be to transfer that knowledge from a shrinking veteran workforce to the emerging new workers.

Veteran knowledge centres are already being set-up and the advent of holographic systems and devices allow these veterans to appear anywhere and at any time.  They can be instantly called upon to link-up and share the vision of a worker who needs assistance or advice.

Hololens Holomentors diagram

These “Holo-mentors”, via their devices, can provide step-by-step audio and visual instruction.  This may even extend to ‘hands-on’ guidance, as they point out specifics in the user’s vision, in real-time, using holographic pointers and instructional icons.

Multiple workers and cadets can also join these sessions live, or watch recordings at a later date as they are filed in the company’s knowledge library. As this knowledge library grows, so will the bank of instantly accessible information.  This in turn means that workers may be able to solve issues by reviewing previously recorded mentor sessions without direct live access to a “Holo-mentor”. In essence, this transforms every support situation into a continuous learning opportunity for anyone in the business, now and in the future.

Additionally, safety, traceability, production quality and efficiency will all be enhanced with everyone on the line equipped with an extra set of hi-tech eyes. This maximises the real time identification of issues on the line or with the product.  With the added bonus of recorded vision, productivity and quality can be reviewed and analysed at any time under the umbrella of continuous improvement.

A Seamlessly Connected Future

Left unchecked, the challenge of the generational knowledge gap will detrimentally impact the food manufacturing industry going forward.  There is a fantastic opportunity for the food industry to lead the way for other industries in meeting this challenge.

Wiley envisages a future where the way in which food facilities are designed and operated will shift to suit these emerging workforce and technology trends.

AR in particular will revolutionise and optimise the food processing facilities of the future by connecting the emerging workforce with experienced veterans in exciting new ways. This will in turn drive new levels of productivity and competitiveness.

Wiley are actively exploring how best to utilise these technologies to support the food industry to bring food, people and the technologies that connect them together in a better way.

First Published in Food & Drink Business Magazine Jan/Feb 2016 – view here (page 20)