Skills Crisis: Business as usual during a global pandemic

As industries around the globe head towards the next industrial revolution, Industry 5.0, Australia faces the realities of slow Industry 4.0 uptake. ...

As industries around the globe head towards the next industrial revolution, Industry 5.0, Australia faces the realities of slow Industry 4.0 uptake, the impacts of which are exacerbated by major skills shortages and an increasingly competitive global market.

Additionally, the advent of COVID-19 has propelled all industries into a time where working side-by-side is fraught by unforeseen challenges as well as increased demand, supply chain challenges and a new focus on sovereign capability. And whilst operations are adapting to the new ‘business as usual’ the need to automate and implement a long-term digital transformation strategy is now.

There’s been no shortage of discussion around the skills challenges that Industry is currently facing and the urgent and pressing threat to the future of Australian manufacturing. The 2021 Skills Priority List, by the National Skills Commission, has reaffirmed the concerns of Australian manufacturers, whereby engineers and first-class welders among many other skilled workers, are in low-supply but high-demand and predicts this pressure will remain well into the future.

Now more than ever, manufacturers need to find new approaches to increase production and throughput – and automation, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and robotics provides a way forward. Already changing the way businesses and workers function, this suite of technologies can increase productivity, relieve pressure on the current workforce and fill evolving labour gaps.

“It’s time to change the dialogue on Australia’s skills crisis,” says ARM Hub CEO, Dr Cori Stewart. “It’s very clear that manufacturers are already struggling to manage their workforce needs, particularly in regional areas.”

“We can’t increase production by growing the number of jobs – leading simply to increasing vacancies. Instead, we need to increase Australia’s production through complementary technology and skills solutions. Staff retention can also improve, as opportunities to gain new skills can be very attractive.”

Protecting a business’s bottom line and ensuring a sustainable business through digital transformation and technology adoption is an opportunity too good to pass up, however it’s not as simple as purchasing a robot.

Recently, the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Hub’s experts visited a local Brisbane manufacturer to do an assessment of their factory to identify their greatest bottlenecks and opportunities to digitally transform. Among their observations was a welding robot in-use but not living up to its expectations – a common story among Australian manufacturers where installed robotic systems haven’t met expectations for a range of reasons.

ARM Hub inserted one of their in-house mechatronics engineers within this workshop for a short sprint to troubleshoot the collaborative robot-based welder and programming to perform small batch welding projects. Although the expert welder was close, some tweaks to the approach along with a few tips and tricks, was just what they needed to get the project on track and build their capability to set up the next product line.

While workshop operators have at times been considered slow to accept and adopt new technology, when the opportunity is created for master tradespeople to work alongside robotics and automation experts together, they can find the solution that’s needed for their specific production challenge. And ARM Hub, in its unique position as an independent, not for profit with member access to robotics and AI expertise from right across Queensland’s research ecosystem, is well placed to work with manufacturers to create these opportunities for their business.

Robotics, AI and automation technologies are becoming more accessible in terms of cost, and will become increasingly important to incorporate into manufacturing production models. Certainly, without them, it will become difficult to see how production can grow and accommodate both skills and supply chain challenges our nation faces. For those companies who are yet to start the Industry 4.0 journey, their late entry is making it difficult to compete. But it is not too late to start the journey and ARM Hub can help.