Debra Schug is a freelance writer as well as the communications manager for Simutech Multimedia, a company providing simulation-based training tools for the manufacturing industry.
The labor market is getting tight for all manufacturing industries. For a snapshot, a survey by Deloitte’s new study estimated that nearly 4.6 million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled in the next decade. And the lack of skilled workers is expected to result in more than two million of those jobs going unfilled.
To make matters worse, manufacturing jobs are not being widely sought out. A 2016 study commissioned by dairy processor Land O’ Lakes found only 12% of adults would consider a career in manufacturing and engineering.
The task at hand for food and beverage processors is to train a large number of new workers efficiently, effectively and safely, but also do it in a way that will speak to a new generation entering the workforce. Enter simulation.
In simulation, real conditions are artificially represented. Simulation training is an instructional strategy for students to learn and practice problem-solving skills in a realistic environment, but without the risk of danger. For this reason, simulation training is particularly useful in applications, such as the manufacturing plant floor, where trainees could cause harm or damage expensive equipment.
Studies evaluating the best practices of training programs, in terms of student engagement and maximum material retention, show that learners retain more information if they learn by doing, rather than just by reading or listening. And with simulations, learners can interact with equipment and observe the changes they make, which allows them to explore “what if” scenarios and test hypotheses.
Ways of using simulation
Before using simulation to train staff, manufacturers should know how best to employ the technology. There are a number of ways to do this. For example, a simulation program can be autonomous, which means the system has been programed to guide the trainee using hints and feedback. Or it can make use of a human trainer, teacher, peer or coach, who walks trainees through the simulation.
Yet another simulation experience is one that is scaffolded, which means it provides opportunities for users to form their own hypotheses and progressively move toward a stronger understanding. Simulations that use scaffolded learning activities are recommended by many educational experts because they can help trainees learn complex concepts by breaking up the concept into separate, manageable parts that are easier to learn.
In recent years, e-learning methodology has been exploring ways to use gamification, which is the concept of using game design elements to motivate participation and engagement in some existing entity, whether it be a website, application or brand. Using this type of approach in simulation training can be very powerful, but it must be designed with care, so that students are not merely engaging with the “game,” but with the underlying content.
Perhaps the most effective way to implement simulation is through a use of all the above methods. A training system that presents content in manageable chunks, from basic to more advanced levels of information, allows students to test what they have or have not gleaned before progressing to the next stage of material. Providing guidance and feedback in each phase of learning allows students to continuously build their knowledge.
Whether trainees are using simulation-training tools individually or in a classroom setting, managers should have the ability to track the progress of each student and see who is progressing quickly and who might need more help. Moreover, training systems that employ artificial intelligence can automatically assess the training metrics and use that to control the pace of students’ advancement.
Staff who are properly trained in a systematic method don’t need to use trial and error to repair faults. They use critical thinking skills to solve equipment issues quickly, safely and efficiently, without replacing parts unnecessarily, and sparing businesses costly downtime. Less downtime means better production numbers and, ultimately, a lot less stress for managers.
Advantages of computer-based instructional simulations
Not all simulations are computer-based. Sometimes they involve elaborately recreated environments or large pieces of production line machinery retired and re-wired for educational purposes. High-fidelity simulations can be too costly to be practical, so computer-based instructional simulations using software to create a simulated reality is a far less expensive alternative.
Moreover, computer simulations have a number of advantages, including enhancing learners’ motivation. Most of the up and coming manufacturing workforce are millennials and Generation Z consumers who have been raised on video and computer games. They learn better with computer simulations and report more satisfaction with the learning process.
Students can actually learn by doing to achieve a better transfer of learning rather than traditional lecturing teaching methods. Since the environment is simulated, students are physically safe and can’t cause harm to themselves or others.
Finally, computer-based instructional simulations can be a cost effective way to allow trainees to gain experience with equipment without actually using the equipment. This can be important if the equipment is in constant use and can’t afford to be stopped due to training purposes, or perhaps the equipment is too expensive to risk any damage.