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Last July, A.O. Smith invited the trade media for a look at its newly renovated Technical Training Facility in Ashland City, Tennessee.
The upgraded training facility will offer traditional classroom sessions, as well as hands-on training in A. O. Smith’s three fully functional residential, commercial and water heater product labs.
The improvements made to the facility include enough space to allow an additional 500 contractors to attend onsite training each year.
However, it’s enhancements to the video production studio behind the scenes that will help A.O. Smith reach many more contractors with an array of digital training options. Options include online product workshops, certifications and continuing education credits, as well as hours of online, on-demand content covering the entire line of the company’s residential and commercial products.
With expanded capabilities in 3D animation, 360-degree cameras and virtual reality, the studio can now communicate concepts that previously would have been difficult or impossible even in an in-person, classroom setting. These classes will be offered as live-streaming training events, which contractors can attend from the comfort of their home or office, but still have the opportunity to interact and ask questions in real time.
A.O. Smith has long been at the forefront of expanding such educational opportunities for the professional channel onto the web, according to David Chisolm, the company’s vice president of marketing.
“About eight years ago,” Chisolm says, “one of our contractor customers asked us to conduct training on heat pumps – a new technology at the time. Back then, we had the capacity to train about 1,500 people a year in traditional classroom training.”
However, the contractor wanted to conduct the training in the field. Chisolm said the company wrestled with how to meet the demand and ended up conducting infield training via video and certifying the contractors electronically.
“Through that one training event, we ended up training more contractors than we had trained in the past five years onsite in our classroom setting,” he added. “It opened our eyes to the capabilities of teaching through technology.”
Last year, more than 78,000 industry pros attended online training, with another 1,500 attending classes in person at the facility.
A classroom setting remains important and a quick look at A.O. Smith’s traditional on campus workshops include a range of options from a four-day Full Product Line Workshop to dedicated one-day Residential or Commercial Product Workshops. But the demand for online training is exploding, as more and more customers discover the convenience of streaming the exact technical training they need at the exact time they want it.
“Our industry continues to experience a shortage of skilled labor while also experiencing an increasing need for training,” Chisolm says. “So what do you do when you have fewer people and less time and yet still need to invest in training? It can be done with non-traditional methods supplemented with traditional ways of training. We’re blending both the digital and traditional experiences.”
With the growth of high-speed internet connections, web cams, and mobile devices, contractors have become much more comfortable with the technology.
A.O. Smith has been an early adopter of this type of teaching technology, experimenting with new ways to make the training more engaging including 3-D graphics and animation. Tankless water heater training might include, for example, a two-way web stream where one set of instructors tears down a unit in Ashland City while other teachers and students gather at the customer’s location and do the tear down with their own hands.
Often times, said Jason Leonard, the company’s technical training manager, the online experience can be even more instructive than in-person since multiple camera angles and graphics can show better details to understand water heating equipment.
And not everything needs to be viewed live either. Leonard said the company has well over 100 hours worth of content that plumbers can view on any web-enabled device. What’s more, A.O. Smith’s units include QR codes that techs can scan that will take them directly to the right site with quick video advice they need.
“Let’s say it’s 2 a.m.,” Leonard adds, “and the restaurant owners wants to know if he can serve breakfast later in the morning. Our tech support center isn’t open at that hour, but the video might be just what the tech needs to fix the water heater and get the restaurant up and running.”
The company’s first digital forays were relative straightforward affairs. The broadcasts essentially mimicked a classroom setting, allowing for PowerPoint and other online material.
“Essentially, we had a ‘talking head’ teaching the online classes,” Leonard explains. “But we soon found out that we could make the teaching much more dynamic if we had a couple of instructors interacting with each other and also talking directly to the camera work.”
Top-notch video production is another key to what A.O. Smith accomplishes. We hadn’t seen the training facility before any of the upgrades, but the production studio is on par with what you’d expect from an actual TV studio, including teleprompters, stage lighting rigs, a control room and multiple 4K digital video cameras.
At one point in our tour, editors donned virtual reality audio and visual gear for a chance to take apart a water heater, as if one were in The Matrix. You could even stick your head inside the heater to view coils and water.
Online training techniques have even influenced how the company teaches in the classroom. Since launching online training, A. O. Smith has converted most of its classroom training to hands-on instruction in a working lab, dropping traditional classroom lectures.
“The more training we can offer, the better our chances are to have more of our products installed,” Chisolm says. “We continue to reinvigorate who we are as an organization that was started in 1874. One area I think exemplifies that more than anything is our dedication to how we have continued to invest in our training department. We offer great technology and tremendous technical expertise, and we continue to look for new ways to put the two together.”