The future of industrial automation training

Smarter workers: Think beyond the limitations of the human brain to help industrial automation and industrial automation education. Use the brain outside your brain (BOYB) to “know” things not previously learned.

By Jon Breen April 6, 2020

The limits of the human brain govern how humans learn in industry. First, let’s call out the biological brain for what it is. It’s incredibly good at complex pattern recognition, critical thinking and creativity. In many respects, the world’s biggest supercomputers and the world’s smartest programmers still haven’t matched biological human brains for performance.  

It’s ironic, though, that the rate of technological improvement is challenging human brains, pointing out some inherent weaknesses in the biological approach. Learning is slow, things are forgotten and mistakes madeSuch shortcomings have a major impact on how we learn in manufacturing 

Another brain, anyone? 

Fortunately, the manufacturing industry uses numerous strategies to combat these shortcomings and improve learning. Some cognitive burden shifts outside the human brain by using a notebook, a calendar, a manual and a spellchecker. In most cases, the structure of these resources is consistent. Remembering what a calendar is, or understanding the idea of a table of contents, enables fast information retrieval with perfect accuracy — even without seeing it before.  

Technology has increased the effectiveness of these tools. For example, instead of gathering printed manuals on a shelf for every servo motor, the internet can provide instant access to every manual needed. Using the search feature in a .PDF reader helps find information quickly. An internet search can sometimes pull relevant information out of the manual and display it on the search results without opening a manual. Ironically, as better computers are developed faster, those computers are simultaneously useto manage the resulting chaos they create. As they say: “Computers. You can’t live with em, you can’t live without em.” 

Brain outside your brain (BOYB) training 

Business and industry have been shortcutting training with simple techniques for a long time. Ever heard of SOPs (standard operating procedures), VWIs (visual work instructions), or any other TLA (three letter acronym) used to document a process? These quick reference documents assist manual workers in factories, but a similar approach could benefit knowledge workers, as well: Take the time to figure something out, generalize it to apply to other versions of the same thing, then record it in a place where someone else can look it up. With this approach, we can go far beyond the scope of a manual. As a team, we can learn something once and then quickly share the information.  

This approach can be formalized into intentional training approaches. Some component manufacturers in automation have started publishing brief how-to videos on the Internet, a perfect example of making one brain’s knowledge easily retrievable by another — a “brain outside your brain (BOYB).” As this approach expands, it’ll take on a more significant role in training. What types of job-related information can be outsourced to an alternate brain? Can learning be just in time, rather than waiting in inventory? What would that look like? 

Standard industrial automation training processes 

Standard industrial automation training approaches revolve around in-person, scheduled training programs, usually through a supplier or manufacturer. These have been valuable additions to the workforce’s skill set, but they come with limitations. They’re only offered at certain times, often require travel, require a person to commit to the whole course in one sitting and can be expensive. To gather knowledge necessary for a project, plan well in advance, binge the material all at once, and hope your memory and notes are up to the task when it comes time to implement. 

Because of these limitations, people often aren’t getting training that would help them. Even if they got the training, they’ve often forgotten much of it by the time they need it. This is a perfect opportunity to improve things with the BOYB approach. 

Using the brain outside your brain approach is commonly used to know things not previously learned. How? 

  • Have you ever had a home improvement project, car issue, gardening interest, or curiosity about the newest electronic gadget? 
  • Did you go to school and get a degree in each one of those things in case you ever needed to know about them? 
  • If you were to do that, would you remember what you need to know when the time came?  
  • Would the knowledge still be relevant?  

Answers are almost universally “no” for all these questions. No one has a degree in every needed life skill, and if anyone did, recalling the information would be challenging. Also, the information would likely be obsolete by the time it was needed (especially with technology). 

Industrial automation training processes in 2020 

Twenty years ago, most probably outsourced these skills to other people. For example, you might call an uncle who’s a plumber to install a new faucet. Today, many of us turn to the internet for do-it-yourself (DIY) advicereserving the uncle for harder stuff. For example, YouTube has tutorials for almost every home improvement project imaginable. It’s easy enough to watch them before doing the project to aid recall. Advanced planning isn’t needed.  

This type of BOYB “training” is becoming available for industrial topics, as well. Major automation manufacturers are dipping their toes in the water, making short videos on how-to topics, product demos, selection guides, etc. They tend to be product-specific and limited in scope. Such videos seem unlikely to address product shortcomings or negative real-life scenarios. Collegesindividuals and other organizations also are posting content approaching topics from other angles, which will be an area of growth over the next few years.  

Future industrial automation training 

Quick reference and skills development also seem to be likely growth areas for BOYB training for industry professionals. 

Quick reference refers to training that helps someone immediately. This is usually a short video that helps a person dealing with a very specific task. For example, let’s say a programmable logic controller (PLC) dies in a piece of automation. The program has been backed up, and there’s a spare PLC on the shelf, but the technician doesn’t do this very often and can’t remember how to load the program. Automation downtime can be very expensive, which means it’s important to get this fixed ASAP.  

The technician could look through manuals, or find an on-demand course on PLCs, but that could take a while. The best thing would be a quick video on downloading PLC programs to that kind of PLC. Access to short, specific videos like this expands what a person can do in a job, today.  

Skills development and BOYB training growth will likely focus on broader topics like vision inspection, industrial Ethernet, PLC programming, etc. You might think of them in similar terms to traditional in-person seminars offered by manufacturers and distributors, but they may offer more of a parallel path. They may be more accessible in terms of cost, scheduling and geography. On the other hand, they don’t offer the hands-on experience that comes from in-person training, so the two approaches will be complementary. 

Scalable training: fopros, by pros 

People can be encouraged to learn and grow at their own pace, on their own time, and without breaking the bank. Developing training materials to address the immediate and future needs of industrial automation professionals, students and companies can help. 

Jon Breenfounder/owner,Breen Machine Automation ServicesControl Engineering content partner. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media, 

KEYWORDS: Automation education, workforce learning 

Using another brain helps with limits to human recall. 

Industrial training process are changing. 

Quick references and skills development seem likely areas of growth. 


What skills would improve your career? What kinds of how-to training would help you out of a bind? Let us know.  

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Author Bio: Jon Breen, owner, Breen Machine Automation Services, LLC