Cognex, a leading designer and developer of machine vision systems and sensors, supports manufacturers that assemble goods on a factory floor with sophisticated systems that involve robot guidance, pattern recognition and character identification. To help its clients maintain these complex products and procedures, the company offers learning and development programs that explain their operation, said Cliff Fitzgerald, Cognex’s senior manager of worldwide educational services.
“Most of what we do involves teaching our customers to program, set up and maintain our products,” he said. “These are systems or sensors that involve a video camera and a computer looking at parts going by on a conveyer for quality assurance. With a complex product, you’ve definitely got to provide some method of learning besides just the manual. Some of our products have tutorials built right into them, but most of the vision sensors require a class.”
Many of these courses are delivered through traditional face-to-face methods. This can involve Cognex instructors going to the customers’ sites, consumers traveling to the company’s headquarters or the two parties meeting at regional teaching centers, Fitzgerald said. However, Cognex has increased its e-learning programs since purchasing Centra for Web conferencing in 2001. “We’ve been doing a lot of online classes for our customers, and they seem to love it,” he said. “Originally, we were teaching in a separate room called our ‘online classroom,’ but we found out that we could actually save time for the instructor by just simulcasting classes that are taught in a classroom with students at the same time. They see the PowerPoint slides that we use. They see the demos that we do of our products. They can take the quizzes and fill out evaluation forms online.”
One of the most effective uses of e-learning has been to support end users of Cognex systems, who typically purchase the products in small amounts, Fitzgerald said. The main reason the company chose to go with a Web conferencing solution was to reach out to large numbers of end users. “An example of an end-user product would be In-Sight. In-Sight looks like an Excel spreadsheet, and every cell in the spreadsheet is potentially a vision function. It’s kind of a neat paradigm, because everybody’s familiar with Excel, just from filling out expense reports and that type of thing. There’s a lot of knowledge transfer there. It’s still got some very powerful vision algorithms built into it: pattern matching, character recognition, image processing. It’s all there and available for the end user.”
Because the product training is designed for end users at Cognex’s customers, the learners are geographically dispersed. “We have people all over the world that are watching the classes,” Fitzgerald said. “It saves them a tremendous amount of money because they don’t have to travel here. A lot of customers will even watch these classes at home in their free time because a lot of their jobs depend on knowing how to operate these systems. It really fits into their schedule as opposed to forcing them to fit into our schedule.”
Because Fitzgerald reports to Cognex’s customer satisfaction division, tracking learners and obtaining user feedback is of the utmost importance, he said. These functions are performed with a Pathlore learning management system. “We’re actually tracking who attends the classes,” he said. “They go in and choose whether they want a classroom course or an online course. They also have computer-based tutorials and videos.
“We do take (customer satisfaction) very seriously,” Fitzgerald explained. “We’re always soliciting feedback. Every time someone takes even a one-hour session, there’s an evaluation to fill out with their experience, what was easy to learn, what was difficult to learn and did it accomplish all the objectives. As part of that, we give them learning outcomes and performance objectives, and we test them to make sure they’re understanding the material. There are also hands-on lab exercises that they do as part of every class. It’s a pretty comprehensive package.”
–Brian Summerfield, email@example.com
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