Japan’s population, with the world’s highest proportion of older adults, has been described as a “super-aging” society.
With this comes the added strain of a resultantly shrinking workforce. Companies are faced with the challenge of increasing productivity whilst competition for a smaller talent pool builds.
This applies to all sectors, and the manufacturing, energy and utilities industries are no different.
In this particular case, the need to find new ways to attract and enable the next-generation workforce is an especially pressing one.
But as with any challenge, this pressure presents an opportunity for innovation too.
Passing the baton
Metawater, a leading Japanese provider of repair and maintenance services for water and sewage infrastructure, provides its services to multiple local governments across Japan.
Demand for these services is growing: the bulk of Japan’s social infrastructure was built between the 1950s and ‘70s and is now showing its age, requiring greater care and maintenance.
As the workforce ages, however, and engineers approach retirement in greater numbers than before, there is a need to pass on the skills and experience accumulated over the years by Metawater’s staff.
What’s more, this process of passing on information needs to be done in a way that suits the new, increasingly digital working approach of a new generation of engineers.
A more agile approach
The industry has moved on from a ‘man with a spanner’ approach, and today relies more heavily on digital technologies to get things done.
More so than just replacing notepads with tablets, however, this also means asset management firms are being forced to entirely re-adapt their traditional way of working.
Rather than the ‘waterfall’ approach typically favoured by engineers, which involves planning projects from end to end and then following that blueprint, a digital-lead approach involves a greater deal of agility.
It’s about trying things, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and then adapting accordingly.
Metawater is a prime example of just how this can work in practice.
In a way that might seem almost back-to-front for many engineers, Metawater began by replacing its engineers’ clipboards and pens with tablets and digitising their working processes.
With that technology (literally) in hand, it became easier to think about how to make the most of it – both in terms of digitising processes, and collating and passing on the information and experience that service engineers up to that point had been holding in their heads.
Working with Fujitsu, Metawater began placing AR markers and tags on the infrastructure assets being visited by engineers. These tags can be recognised by the tablet’s camera and subsequently trigger information to be displayed on the screen.
With the tags in place, it became possible to attribute different data to those assets: from information recorded at previous inspections, to sound recordings of what a healthy pipe should sound like, or on-screen repair instructions that can be overlaid in real time and used by a more experienced engineer to walk trainees through a fix process without having to be there in person.
This direct transfer of knowledge from one generation of the workforce to the next has proven invaluable, making critical systematic checks more efficient and shoring up vital information resources for the future.
A view of the future
More than just increased efficiency and knowledge transfer, however, the ease of recording data from assets has enabled Metawater engineers to obtain a much broader view of operations.
Once you’ve started collecting data and building a picture of your assets, you can begin to apply analytics and use those findings to be more predictive, and even prescriptive, in your behaviour: using historical data to identify persistent problem areas, or spot and curtail incidents before they occur.
What’s perhaps so refreshing about Metawater’s approach – and the challenges the company and Japan’s workforce face are by no means uncommon – is it prioritises getting things done.
It’s about deploying technology and then building on those foundations, exploring the full potential of the tools and methods in place.
It’s an agile approach that’s not only reflective of, but frankly more suited to, the digital world in which we increasingly live and work.
If the manufacturing, energy and utilities industries are going to keep up with the digital revolution going on in the world around them, they need to engage the future workforce that will take them there.
Want to find out more? You can read a full case study on our work with Metawater over here.