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July 8, 2019

Eye tracking fixes more than just the skills gap in manufacturing.

If you asked every worker in your factory to explain how to accomplish the tasks that are

Tobii Pro's Tom Englund

essential to their job, how varied do you think their explanations would be? Depending on the complexity of the task and experience level of the worker, chances are they’d vary a lot. If you then used these instructions to teach a new hire how to perform the task, there are likely going to be crucial details that are forgotten or didn’t occur to the worker because they’re part of their intrinsic thoughts or subconscious actions.

The point is this…a lot of valuable knowledge is often unattainable, which can be problematic when trying to optimize a workforce already under pressure to acquire new skills at a rapid pace.

That is where eye tracking comes in. 

Eye tracking, put simply, is the process of recording—with great precision—where people look. This is especially important in manufacturing, where there is a major skills gap. In this environment, a typical setup is to equip a worker with non-obtrusive eye-tracking glasses and have him or her perform a task. The camera in the glasses records the environment while special software enables others to view this person’s gaze with incredible accuracy. This method also allows for data aggregation and analysis, which generates added value.

The skills gap & manufacturing

Bridging the skills gap in manufacturing is possibly the biggest issue facing the sector today. Industry 4.0 and the advent of the smart factory has transformed the definition of a ‘manufacturing job’ from something centered around physical labor to something more complex, dynamic and tech-heavy.

A recent Deloitte report revealed that 50% of manufacturers have already adopted automation and are most in need of skills relating to critical thinking, programming and technology. The same report made the frightening forecast that within the next 10 years the skills gap will cost the U.S. $2.5 trillion in lost GDP on the back of a worker shortfall in the vicinity of 2.4 million. 

Whether you subscribe to these bleak predictions or not, finding and training adequately skilled labor is a real issue. Aside from the fact that technology is increasing the potential for productivity and outpacing the labor supply, there’s the added wave of retiring baby boomers, which is depleting companies of their highly experienced staff base. Already, major conglomerates like Boeing and Michelin have started rehiring retirees to help train new staff and ensure their years of experience aren’t lost.

But what if you could supercharge this skills-retention by utilizing eye tracking?

Preserving and perpetuating tacit knowledge

It’s widely accepted that when experienced staff retire or leave, a great wealth of accumulated knowledge goes with them; eye tracking provides the opportunity to preserve it and pass it on to other workers. This method can be used to teach workers new skills and improve the consistency and quality of existing training or, even, to upskill staff.

Perhaps an experienced worker in quality-assurance has found a method of inspection that better detects defects. Even though all workers go through the same motions, it is this worker’s visual attention that is more effective than others, and yet no one knows about it. This was the case for a Japanese automotive manufacturer, which discovered a method of inspection during an eye-tracking study that cut training time in half and dramatically reduced errors. An aluminum foundry in the U.S. cut hundreds of hours off annual onboarding time via the same means and identified visual-attention patterns that led to accidents. Being able to show these recorded gaze patterns to workers is far more effective than written or diagrammatic explanations and overcomes many of the language limitations in a diverse workforce.

How eye tracking closes the skills gap

The greatest value of eye tracking is in its ability to access instinctive behaviors and elements of performing a task that evade traditional methods of instruction.

In addition to wearable eye-tracking glasses, VR with eye tracking is also expanding training possibilities by providing a safe, consequence-free space for training and assessment. VR eliminates the need to take equipment or facilities offline and enables multiple training situations to occur simultaneously, anywhere in the world. The practical and financial benefits of this are clear—companies will save considerable time and resources through the implementation of eye tracking.

It’s only a matter of time until we see eye tracking routinely used in manufacturing. This technology is already used extensively across the globe by major companies to improve training and efficiency. It’s no longer a complicated concept reserved for researchers in a lab—eye tracking is affordable, effective, and easy to implement in almost any workplace.

Tom Englund is president of Tobii Pro.

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