Exploring the Human-Technology Frontier

ATE Project Facilitates Regional Convening on the Future of Work

Ann-Claire Anderson, Principal Investigator, Preparing Technicians for the Future of Work • December 2, 2019

The nature of work is changing right before our eyes. The effects of accelerating technology advancements on the technician workforce are posing challenges and opportunities for community colleges whose mission includes preparing STEM technicians for the uncertain work of the future. Conversations between educators and employers are underway across the country to identify the cross-cutting knowledge and skills that will be required of STEM technicians and determine how best to equip them to remain competitive in the future workplace.

Regional Convening in Winston-Salem

In a first-of-its-kind regional event, the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (NSF-ATE) program convened education and workforce development thought leaders to discuss critical issues surrounding preparing technicians for work of the future. Led by the Center for Occupational Research and Development (CORD) and hosted by Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, the convening included participants from industry, workforce development agencies, community colleges with ATE grants, and universities from North and South Carolina.

During the event’s opening session, Matthew Carter, Vice President of Engineering Operations at Cook Medical, whose Winston-Salem site develops and manufactures devices used in gastrointestinal endoscopy, offered local industry perspectives on cross-cutting skill areas that will impact future STEM technician training.

The following day, convening participants heard from subject matter experts who set the stage for exploration of three future-critical skill areas: Data Knowledge and Analysis, Advanced Digital Literacy, and Business Knowledge and Processes.

Using a Knowledge and Skills Inventory created by the project team, facilitators next guided multi-sector small groups through activities examining 43 topics within the three broad content areas, with an eye toward determining those already being taught and those not yet a part of the instructional landscape.

Preliminary Analysis

Based on input during the activities, the project team learned that about half of the identified cross-cutting knowledge and skill areas are being taught within degree programs within the region as part of course requirements. The other half of the skills are either taught in less traditional ways (e.g. bootcamps), informal learning opportunities like seminars or guest speakers, or not at all. That said, data and digital skills are beginning to permeate STEM programs, regardless of discipline, as are human (employability) skills such as communication and ethics.

I Did That with My Brain! High School Students Explore Physiological Computing

Chris Crawford, Assistant Professor, Computer Science, University of Alabama • September 3, 2019

Advances in Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) are enabling the exploration of novel input techniques. Innovations in this area have resulted in technologies such as neuroprosthetics and brain-controlled wheelchairs. However, there is a lack of research investigating the design of technological tools that prepare the future workforce for this emerging technology. Furthermore, there have been limited investigations of how K-12 technological tools featuring BCI technology support the acquisition of computational thinking skills. Our project, Exploring Physiological Computing Education in the Alabama Black Belt, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Research on Learning, began addressing this gap by holding Neuro Summer Camp 2019.

Neuro Summer Camp 2019

The project recruited 11th and 12th graders from the historic Alabama Black Belt (ABB) region, which consists of a high enrollment of African American students. Sixteen ABB students were invited to a Neuro Summer Camp at the University of Alabama. During the summer camp students learned basic concepts related to capturing and processing brain data (e.g., mounting EEG device, filtering EEG data, creating neurofeedback games). They also participated in activities that involved the design of neurofeedback applications using the developed educational tool.

Preliminary Findings

Preliminary analysis determined that students’ BCI self-efficacy significantly improved after being exposed to our tool. The project team is currently in the process of analyzing artifact-based interviews to determine patterns of computational practice and computational perspectives that emerged during NeuroCamp.

Research Goals

My work focuses on Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI) and Human-Robot Interaction (HRI). As a researcher and instructor my goal is to leverage novel neurophysiological sensing technologies, software engineering, and robotics to create tools and applications that support the exploration of Brain-Robot Interaction (BRI). The objective of our current project is to develop a tool for K-12 BCI education and to explore how that tool influences students’ acquisition of computational thinking skills. Long-term, the project intends to advance knowledge at the intersection of physiological computing and Computer Science education.

To learn more about my research and its applications, visit the University of Alabama’s Human-Technology Interaction Lab.

The ABCs of I4.0: What Technicians Need to Know about Incoming Technologies

Mariano Carreras, International Training Manager, SMC International • August 15, 2019

New technologies are emerging that are, or soon will be, a part of a technician’s day-to-day routine in manufacturing plants. One sweeping trend is that most of the new technologies are related to data—the ”fuel” that is driving processes. With improved data, we can make better decisions, so technicians need to be aware of how and why data is gathered, how data flows and what to do with it. Adoption of new technologies will vary according to the type and size of industry, of course, and the cost of equipment and training, but here are some that will change the role of the technicians interacting with them.

Industrial Controllers

For a long time, machines in production have been controlled by PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers), a technology designed to replace old relay circuits. New devices have evolved from PLCs using ladder logic and proprietary systems, into PACs (Programmable Automation Controllers) or more generically, Industrial Controllers, which use a variety of programming languages. Ladder logic is going to be replaced by more advanced programming, similar to computer programming. Technicians need to be aware of these new types of devices and how their programming languages—Structured Text, Function Block, Instruction List and Sequential Function Chart, as well as C and C++—instruct machines to respond.


Controllers need to “talk” with the plant’s industrial automation computers in this new digital data era. OPC-UA (Unified Architecture) facilitates machine-to-machine communication. Most of the new industrial controllers will have the OPC-UA server embedded in them. And while more engineers than technicians will work with OPC-UA, it is important for technicians to know about this technology and how it works.

Identification Systems

A variety of different identification technologies—BCR (Bar code reader) with the QR code, RFID (Radio Frequency Identification Systems), and NFC (Near Field Communications—will be used across the entire value-added chain. A technician should be able to identify each identification system, understand the working principles behind them, replace and set up the different devices, and change their parameters.

Industrial Communications

In this data age, everything is going to be collected and communicated. Industrial devices use different means and protocols to “talk” between themselves. Ethernet-based devices will continue to be the most common, but there are several other communication protocols, such as IO-LINK, that technicians will interact with. Technicians need to know which protocol is appropriate for a particular task, how that protocol is connected to other devices, and how the information to be communicated is structured.

Distributed I/O (Input/Output)

So far, most of the wiring between sensors and actuators to the PLC has been made from the sensor to the PLC I/O terminals, sometimes with long wires. In the last few years, the trend has become to have distributed I/O blocks so that the connection to the device is made locally to a distributed I/O block provided with a field bus connection and then just sent via a wire to the controller. Technicians need to become familiar with the evolution of the technology and work with these new devices.

HMI (Human-Machine Interfaces)

In the past, the machines were basically controlled with start-stop push buttons. With the increasing demand for flexibility in industry, the interaction between the machine and the operator has become more complex. HMIs now play a big role in production plants. Technicians need to know how they work, how they are connected and programmed, and how to modify parameters and make small changes to improve the machine’s interaction with operator.

Web Services

More and more services are going to be available online. From a customer placing an order to a technician accessing the maintenance plan of a machine, everything will be accessible from a computer, tablet or smart phone. The design of all the infrastructure belongs to the engineers but technicians will have to understand how the services are organized, how the menus work and the data flows, how to solve minor technical problems, and how to communicate effectively via email.

MES/ERP (Manufactuirng Execution System/ Enterprise Resource Planning)

Although it is likely that IT engineers will be responsible for the implementation and maintenance of these data management systems, technicians will play an important role in interacting with some of the modules (like Statistical Process Control or Maintenance Management). They will need to understand, for example, how the data from the plant is transferred to the top level and also how the information from the sensor of a particular machine emits a warning message from the MES and what the appropriate response would be.

Energy Efficiency

To save energy, companies need to measure and monitor compressed air, electricity consumption, and other environmental factors. ISO 50001 supports more efficient energy use in industries across all sectors through the development of an energy management system. Technicians will likely interact with all of the monitoring devices in that system.

Electric Actuators

Electric actuators are replacing pneumatic and hydraulic actuators in automating industrial valves for types of technical processes that require accuracy and intermediate stops. It will become a part of the technician’s role to know how they are connected, programmed and parameterized.

Smart Sensors

In the world of the Industrial Internet of Things, machines are integrated with sensors used primarily for carrying out preventive and predictive maintenance strategies. Sensors help companies enact the “quality not controlled but produced” philosophy. These devices will be connected and interconnected via the cloud and to controllers in a different way and technicians will need to understand how they are programmed and how parameters are modified. Artificial vision (or machine vision) can be considered a special type of smart sensor in which the device acquires the image, analyzes the image by applying algorithms, and then relays information or directs an action in response.

Collaborative Robots

Humans working with robots is not news, but humans working side-by-side with uncaged robots to create synergy is a more recent development, with cobot sales launched in 2008. Technicians will need to have the proper knowledge to solve typical issues with cobots in day-to-day operations. Their functions may be similar to regular robots, but cobots are more compact and lighter weight and can be configured and programmed (and re-configured and re-programmed) easily.

Virtual/Augmented Reality

Virtual reality simulates a real-world environment and allows the user to move around in the space and manipulate objects allowing risk-free practice for technician training and upskilling. While virtual reality provides a completely virtual world, augmented reality enhances the real world by superimposing information on top of what the technician would see without the technology. Technicians will be using these technologies to improve their job efficiency rather than actually programming or maintaining them.

In summary, technicians are going to be involved in a world where new technologies are part of the production processes and they will need to have a knowledge of machines and processes at different levels of the functionality, connectivity, interaction, and operation so that the plant runs at the highest level of performance, quality and efficiency. There will always be more technologies available, as the existing ones continue to evolve. The basic message is that everyone in production needs to be prepared for lifelong learning. Things are changing very quickly!

Special Interest Group Hosts Forward-Looking Conversations to Address the Future of Work

Tiffiney Gray, Project Manager, CORD • August 9, 2019

Technology advancements associated with Industry 4.0—including more sophisticated automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning—present both the need and the opportunity to reimagine and retool technician training to meet the knowledge and skill demands of a rapidly-changing workplace. With support from the NSF Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program, the Preparing Technicians for the Future of Work project convened a Special Interest Group comprised of industry leaders and technician educators at HI-TEC in St. Louis, Missouri. The project facilitated discussions between industry representatives and ATE leaders with a variety of expertise (e.g., advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, information technology, cybersecurity, etc.) to determine ways to actively prepare for the impacts of emerging technologies on the future of work and on the skilled technical workforce.

The group’s discussions also underscored the need to significantly broaden the skill set of the 20th-century technician to cultivate the advanced technician of the 21st century. Discussions centered around three cross-disciplinary trends (identified by participants in earlier convenings) that represent knowledge and skills to be integrated as essential elements of STEM associate degree programs alongside traditional technical skills: data knowledge and analysis, advanced digital literacy, and business knowledge and processes.

Data Knowledge and Analysis

Todd McLees, CEO of the Pendio Group, opened the session with an address that compelled both industry leaders and educators to consider the internal, external, and big-picture skills that are “uniquely human,” including Critical Thinking and Analysis, Cognitive Flexibility, Collaboration and Team Orientation, Effective Communication, Emotional Intelligence, and several others. He suggests that these traits are virtually automation-proof and are key components of human capital that differentiate humanity from even the most sophisticated technologies.

Advanced Digital Literacy

Kimberlee Millikan, Information Security Officer; Dawn Montemayor, Virtual Chief Security Officer at CyberRisk Solutions; and John Sands, Director of the ATE National Center for Systems Security and Information Assurance (CSSIA) highlighted critical talent shortages in information, digital, and cybersecurity technologies but also underscored the need to increase awareness of the “nuanced” job opportunities within the field. There is no once-size-fits-all job description. Instead there are 52 work roles in the National Institute for Cybersecurity Education (NICE) framework, each with varying knowledge, skills, abilities and associated tasks. Associate degrees are diversifying to meet this need.

Business Knowledge and Processes

Later in the day, Brynt Parmeter and Emily McGrath, Director and Deputy Director of Workforce Development at NextFlex, echoed the idea of equipping students with critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills through experiential learning as a foundation for a resilient 21st-century workforce. Mariano Carreras, International Training Manager at SMC Global, emphasized shifts in consumer expectations and emerging technologies that are challenging traditional business models and rapidly changing the face of manufacturing.

Overall, discussants agreed that preparing US technicians for the jobs of the future requires an integrated approach that includes curriculum adjustments at the community college level, widened opportunities for meaningful internships, apprenticeships and other forms of work-based experience.

While the future of work has exciting implications for industry productivity, preparing technicians to excel in this new milieu requires forward-looking discussions—such as those held during the Special Interest Group—to develop strategies to best prepare technicians to remain competitive and excel in the future workplace.

Leadership 4.0: People Development in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Thomas Lichtenberger, President and CEO, Festo Didactic
May 21, 2019

When thinking about manufacturing in America, what comes to mind? Big data processing, cloud-based systems, advanced robotics, and artificial intelligence? If not, they should. The significance of these technologies cannot be overstated. Take AI for example. When used for predictive maintenance AI’s greatest value to manufacturing comes from predictive maintenance, yielding $0.5 trillion to $0.7 trillion across the world’s businesses.1 So this Fourth Industrial Revolution, also known as Industry 4.0, has ushered in an unprecedented technological revolution, and with it, paradigm shifts that affect us all. The complexities and infinite possibilities of Industry 4.0 can be wondrous, and overwhelming. For many automation companies, it’s presenting a management challenge in terms of ensuring individuals, teams, and the organizational structure as a whole can adjust accordingly when new technology and software is introduced.

In this fast-moving innovative environment, what is to be expected and what will be required from Industry 4.0 leaders? How should we adapt in what has been defined by Oxford Leadership2 as a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) environment? Radical changes in the work environment present a call to action to rethink and revamp our collective approach to leadership and organizational change.

Leadership 4.03, a relatively new concept, was designed as a blueprint for workforce adaptability in the Industrial Internet of Things era. It aims to harness the talents of individuals in order to maximize technological advancements. Fifty years ago, the average lifespan for most large companies was 60 years, today it’s 15 years. Advancing people development and closing the skills gap is becoming more urgent since leadership can make or break a company’s ability to adapt and remain agile amidst rising global competition, frequent market changes, and volatility.

Oxford Leadership identified seven key principles4 of Leadership 4.0 that consistently emerged in their research. Their findings reveal the following characteristics for redefining leadership for the fourth industrial revolution:

  • Immersive Customer Focus: Customer-centricity is always the starting point
  • Alignment of Purpose: Leadership is personal, with internal motivations matching business strategic intent
  • Digital and Data Mastery: Intuitive intelligence is augmented with digital and data fluency
  • Transformer Mindset: Curiosity and willingness to learn exist alongside comfort with paradox
  • The Great Man is Dead: Harnessed collective intelligence is greater than edict from above
  • Hyper-Agile Teams: Rapid adaptability, through devolution of authority, evolves into agile, flexible, decentralized, empowered teams
  • Collaboration: Cooperation skills and tools for co-creation are integrated into work and the work culture reflects this

If this sounds like a tall order, it is. It’s not just younger, incoming workers who feel the pressure to do more and be more. According to a 2019 Deloitte survey5 on Industry 4.0 readiness, most Industry 4.0 C-level executives reported feeling empowered to explore the possibilities of Industry 4.0 but said they feel less confident in their abilities to translate Industry 4.0 into tangible business strategies. Additionally, 86 percent of leaders surveyed thought their organizations were doing enough to create a workforce for Industry 4.0, compared to 2018, when leaders recognized the impact of the growing skills gap and as a result, only 47 percent reported feeling confident in their efforts.

At Festo, the more we think about our future as a global automation company, the more we understand how our future success is inextricably tied to student success. This is why our work within Festo Didactic is so rewarding. Some of the most significant progress we experienced as a company last year happened in classrooms. From our new certification program6 to the Mechatronics Apprenticeship Program (MAP) in Mason, Ohio in partnership with Sinclair Community College, to sponsoring high school students at SkillsUSA and other vocational competitions; my colleagues and I found ourselves inspired over and over by students and teachers.

We have a choice in how we design our future work cultures, so let’s do it thoughtfully. The key is not resisting change, it’s knowing how to adapt and plan ahead. Elements of the fourth industrial revolution like AI are impressive, but they can’t replace human emotions, ideas, communication, creativity, and intuition. Pursuing the right balance of letting machines do the work will hopefully free human capacity to dream more, create and expand, and redesign our time in advantageous, meaningful ways.


Whose Responsibility is Information Security, Anyway? And How Do We Address This in Our Future Education Programs?

Dawn Montemayer, Virtual CSO, CyberRisk Solutions • April 5, 2019

When I first started in Information Security, securing the environment was thought to be the Chief Information Security Officer’s responsibility. This, of course, was in the brick and mortar times, with limited functions being done through the internet. There were firewalls at the perimeter to keep the bad guys out. All of this has changed over the last few decades (I know I’m dating myself here!). With the proliferation of mobile technology, online services, and pretty much every business operating in multiple locations across the globe, there is no longer a true perimeter. This has given us an opportunity to rethink Information Security and how its principles should be taught within the educational programs of tomorrow.

To respond to the dynamics of an ever-changing environment, every person in the organization must understand their role in building and maintaining a secure environment. This means that at the core of information security, security awareness must be a living, breathing program in which the business and IT stakeholders can feed information back into the process in a meaningful way, thus creating a feedback loop. The feedback coming in should describe specific information on how controls can be implemented or enhanced in a more efficient way for the business unit’s specific area. Stakeholders need to address the level of risk present while maintaining or increasing the level of security in place.

This core process creates an opportunity for all business and information technology units to contribute to the overall security program, a process in which communication becomes paramount. This means that communication training for the technicians of the future is a critical curriculum component. Educational programs should focus on ensuring students have solid communication skills in order to facilitate vital communication between information security, the business, and IT. Folded into learning how to communicate is the understanding that we all learn and communicate differently. This is why educational programs should also make various modes of learning available.

Ultimately, if we understand that Information Security is everyone’s responsibility, then we must arm those responsible with the knowledge and skills to support this mission. Empowering everyone with solid communication skills and the opportunity to learn this skill in new ways is vital to the program’s success. This is one of the most important skills the next generation of technicians must have.

Recent Blog Posts

ATE Project Facilitates Regional Convening on the Future of Work
Ann-Claire Anderson, Principal Investigator, Preparing Technicians for the Future of Work • December 2, 2019

I Did That with My Brain! High School Students Explore Physiological Computing
Chris Crawford, Assistant Professor, Computer Science, University of Alabama • September 3, 2019

The ABCs of I4.0: What Technicians Need to Know about Incoming Technologies
Mariano Carreras, International Training Manager, SMC International • August 15, 2019

Leadership 4.0: People Development in the Fourth Industrial Revolution
Thomas Lichtenberger, President and CEO, Festo Didactic • May 21, 2019

Whose Responsibility is Information Security, Anyway? And How Do We Address This in Our Future Education Programs?
Dawn Montemayer, Virtual Chief Security Officer, Cyber Risk Solutions • April 5, 2019
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under NSF DUE #1839567. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.