Experts exiting the field and the loss of knowledge that follows them has always been a problem in the water industry, but this has only been amplified by the recent pandemic. Vast amounts of experience and expertise are being lost, but scientists and engineers believe that a new network, backed by artificial intelligence (AI) technology, could be the answer. This may be a way to replace the lost knowledge and store it, so that it can never be lost again.

The workforce in the water industry has been aging and this industry isn’t showing to be attracting very many new, young workers. Talent and knowledge have been lost to retirement in recent times, and COVID-19 has done a great job in accelerating this loss, especially in the water treatment field. It is very difficult to replace the experience that a 20-year veteran of the industry has or the maintenance technicians that store volumes of knowledge in their heads. There have been countless situations over the past two years where a company’s best technician has been leading the way in supporting the newer technicians and customers, and then one day decides to retire. How can one possibly replace their knowledge once they leave? AI might have the answer.

Where are the workers going?

The “Boomer” generation of workers didn’t change jobs very often, and one particular survey found that this cohort stayed in one job for eight years on average. This gives them a great opportunity to build up their knowledge and expertise in a comfortable and consistent role. Contrastingly, a similar survey states that the average time a millennial stays in one job is about two and a half years. On one hand, the older employees are retiring, while the younger employees aren't sticking around very long, comparably. A solution is needed to save an industry that is lacking workers.

A consequence of these experienced workers leaving is that more problems are trying to be resolved on the end users’ side, rather than consult the expert who can give technical support. This is because the resources aren’t there, and they are trying to free up the remaining experts’ time as much as possible and mitigate any site visits. Sending a technician on-site has always been the last option for field service companies. Water treatment plants are facing multiple problems when issues arise:

  • Plant managers are not equipped to provide assistance without outside support
  • Many operators can’t troubleshoot on their own
  • Third-party components are often the parts that fail, so plants are left waiting for service technicians to come out, or have to resort to DIY methods like Google and YouTube to try and fix the issue
  • Experts are overloaded with work, so they spend less time solving complicated problems and more time advising younger technicians

A solution to this is to upskill the operators at the water treatment plant so they can handle more problems when they occur instead of having to consult experienced technicians for support.

The AI solution

Solutions based on augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) have seen a huge rise during the pandemic, along with other tools that can be used remotely. With these tools, experts are still required on one end, and they don’t teach the needed skills. Asking a question and being told the answer is the same concept as someone driving someone to the destination instead of someone driving themselves. Research has shown that people forget at least 50% of what is learned inside an hour; this proves that the current technical support options are not going to solve this issue more efficiently.

The ideal solution is to be able to teach technicians new skills and allow them to grow and hold onto the skills long-term. It would be even better if not only the technicians could be educated, but the other operators and engineers that help to run the equipment at water treatment plants were educated as well. A new on-demand network of expertise called InSkill has been designed to collect all of the valuable experience and knowledge that seasoned workers possess and build up a network called the InSkill Network. Factories and OEMs can also contribute knowledge to this network.

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With AI, all users can access the network to diagnose and fix issues, as well as perform some other tasks. The more that the AI network is used, the more that it learns, and the library of knowledge keeps getting bigger. For example, a technician in New York experiences a problem and teaches the AI system the fix. Any technician that has access to the system, no matter what their location in the world, will be able to benefit from this information.

Benefits of this network

The advantages of this network are many, and they are innovative and valuable to maintenance, service, installations and numerous more areas:

  • Plant operators will be able to solve more problems by themselves
  • Technicians can perform tasks that were previously above their skill level
  • AI can collect written knowledge gained from years of experience and store it
  • New technicians and operators will have a shorter onboarding time, allowing them to integrate into the workforce faster
  • Experienced technicians will have more free time so they can focus on the complex problems that are encountered
  • Learning throughout the organization will be improved so everyone can perform these jobs better

What is your opinion on this new network for water operators and engineers? Do you think something like this could be implemented for all industries? Engineering360 would love to hear your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.

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