Editor’s note: As we ended a difficult and unique year and entered a new one, the Training Industry editorial team asked learning leaders to write in with their reflections on 2020 and predictions for 2021. This series, “What’s Changed and What Hasn’t?: Taking Stock of 2020 and Planning for 2021,” is the result. Plus, don’t miss our infographic, “5 Tips for Turning 2020 Disarray Into 2021 Direction: Insights From Learning Leaders,” which shares insights from the series.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced manufacturers to find new ways to train workers, as traditional on-the-job-training (OJT) was no longer feasible due to social distancing requirements. In addition, in a 2019 survey by the Manufacturing Institute, 70% of manufacturers reported that “the biggest impacts of robotics on the workforce in the next five years will be an increased need for talent to manage in a more automated, flexible production environment and the opening of new jobs to engineer robotics and their operating systems.”

Manufacturers will meet this need with remote training tools leveraging advanced technologies, including augmented reality (AR) and 3D work instructions, to prepare workers for the anticipated increased use of robotics in manufacturing, while complying with COVID-19 mandates.

The Benefits of AR Training

Using advanced training tools provides more benefits than social distance compliance, which will lead manufacturers to favor them over on-the-job training in 2021. AR training improves understanding, advances knowledge of spatial structure and function and preserves long-term memory retention, while improving physical task performance.

With 3D instructions embedded in the production line with mixed reality (MR), new workers always have a reference ready to assist them on the job. Experienced workers can also add valuable instructions based on their expertise, preserving tribal knowledge. This knowledge transfer will be especially important in the next decade, as the manufacturing workforce expects a wave of retirements.

The Impact of COVID-19

As COVID-19 restrictions continue, we will continue to see a less crowded factory floor as manufacturers are forced to function with fewer employees. To keep workers safe while meeting production demands, we will see manufacturers rely on AR training to reskill them for new operations and other critical areas, such as safety, maintenance and quality assurance, as they take on new tasks.

As we saw in 2020, digitally enabled factories allow manufacturers to alter their capabilities to create personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, hand sanitizer and other needed supplies to help health care organizations keep up with demand. AR-enabled training helps workers learn quickly and remotely how to produce these new products, enabling them to accelerate production and pivot operations quickly and effectively.

As we see demand for PPE skyrocket as the pandemic continues this year, we’re likely to see manufacturers leverage AR training to adjust operations in order to produce needed supplies while keeping employees safe. AR-enabled remote assistance solutions are likely to become the standard for facilitating on-site training and quickly answering questions from on-site workers to avoid production delays. These solutions combine AR applications with a live video feed of the worker’s production line, which allows off-site experts to evaluate the situation in real time and provide guidance accordingly. These experts can also denote focus areas with 3D notations layered over the video feed.

Keeping the Focus on People

Despite the fact that COVID-19 is accelerating digital transformation, leading manufacturers to increase investments in industrial internet of things (IoT) technologies and automation, people are still the heart of the operation. As automation prevents a crowded factory floor while replacing tedious, repetitive tasks, workers will use new technologies to solve problems and improve operations.

For example, a worker can analyze data from a connected machine to forecast downtime or find ways to consolidate processes. This human-machine collaboration will help manufacturers comply with health regulations and accelerate production amid the ongoing pandemic and beyond.

Even though smart factories are changing jobs, people must be at the center of any organization. In 2021, manufacturers will lead with a human-first mindset to maximize production and leverage talent accordingly. As AR technology becomes the new standard for training and remote support for the new distributed workforce, operations will also evolve to the flexible production model that 2021 will demand.