Bridging the Generational Divide in Manufacturing

  • May 19, 2015
  • Infor
  • Feature

By Jeff Nedwick, Industry Solution & Strategy Director, Infor Automotive

In order to clearly understand the breadth of the generational divide that exists in manufacturing today, consider the evolution of the auto body draftsman. Thirty years ago, an auto body draftsman designed fenders, doors and other auto body parts in two dimensions - on a flat drafting board with paper and a pencil.  Since fenders and doors are anything but planar in nature, tricky section cuts and projections – called true radials – were required in order to convey the design intent with enough precision for a tooling designer to develop the required dies, fixtures and transfer tooling needed to build the fender, door or body panel and assemble them into a finished vehicle.

The draftsman role was an exceedingly elite, high-skilled profession requiring extensive spatial skills. Careers were made or broken based on how well one was able to accurately represent a three-dimensional design idea as a two-dimensional drawing that would in turn be used to create a three-dimensional part. That was then.

Fast forward to today, and all of this hard-won knowledge is now a simple mouse click. Automotive draftsmen now design automotive body panels three-dimensionally using Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software, where numerical control tool paths are automatically generated to design the dies that will manufacture the parts.  

The skillset required to create true radial sections and projections is now largely obsolete. Today, very few—if any—auto parts designers would know how to sketch a part on a drafting board with a pen and paper. They have developed their craft by learning to design parts directly in sophisticated CAD software systems.

This example is an analogy for the generational divide that exists in the manufacturing industry today. Like the difference between the paper-based draftsman and the CAD-based auto designer, the Baby Boomers and Millennials have each learned very different ways to complete the same tasks across manufacturing. While current conversations tend to focus on the differences between the two generations, it’s important to remember both are working toward the same goal—to design innovative automobiles that meet customer and regulatory demands for styling, performance and safety.

Research has found this generational divide correlates with the skills gap in manufacturing today. According to a recent survey conducted by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte, it is likely that nearly three and a half million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled in the next decade, and the skills gap is expected to result in two million of those jobs going unfilled. When automotive manufacturers find solutions to the challenges brought on by the workplace generational divide, they have the opportunity to solve skills gap-related concerns at the same time.

One of the first steps needed to address the generational divide is to acknowledge the perceptions each generation has about the manufacturing industry and each other. According to the ThomasNet 2014 annual manufacturing industry survey, 43 percent of respondents identified as Baby Boomers stated they believe members of the Millennial generation lack the work ethic and discipline to succeed. In addition, 46 percent of survey respondents noted younger people consider manufacturing as “blue collar” work.

While one may argue the accuracy—or inaccuracy—of these perceptions, they do exist and are held by almost 50 percent of the manufacturing workforce. In order to bridge the generational divide, the perceptions of both the Baby Boomers and Millennials need to be respectfully addressed and solutions found.

This is not an insurmountable challenge for the automotive industry, and it begins by using tools and technologies that accommodate an understanding and respect for each generation’s working style. Interestingly, one of the most potentially useful technology systems to bring together workplace generations may also be one of the most overlooked: an organization’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.

Using ERP systems to close the workplace generational divide

When organizations think about how to close the generational divide, likely the first solutions that come to mind include on-the-job training opportunities or partnering with educational institutions to improve technical education programs. An automotive manufacturer’s own technology—like an ERP system—isn’t likely on top of the list as a way to close this divide. However, there is a unique opportunity to use ERP solutions to help bring generations together in the workplace and foster productivity, efficiency and innovation.

How can ERP systems help? Compare the automotive draftsman example to evolution of the ERP systems from its inception to today. Both have experienced a similar progression. Like the draftsman, early ERP systems created the need for lots of training. Not only did users need to be trained in how to navigate and ERP system’s menus and screens, but also in workflow and procedure.

Because these early ERP systems didn’t work exactly the way people worked—similar to how the draftsman’s two-dimensional drawing didn’t immediately help the die maker know how to make tools to build a three-dimensional object—staff had to first learn how to do their jobs, and then separately learn how to enter, manipulate and extract data from the ERP system. Unfortunately, the ERP system had the distinct honor of usually making life harder, when the intent was for it to make life easier. The pre-CAD software draftsman and die designers would likely argue that—on some occasions—each group only existed to make life harder for the other, as well.

Just as auto designers today don’t need to base their success on translating two-dimensional designs into a three-dimensional world, those now entering the manufacturing industry can begin working on the foundation built from over 20 years of manufacturing ERP system innovation and progress.

The frustrating ERP systems of old are turning from an archaic and highly-technical tool to provide a more consumer-like experience with visually-pleasing user interfaces and the incorporation of social collaboration tools, alerts, and mobile access.

In a report entitled, “Can ERP Bridge the Generational Divide,” analyst firm Mint Jutras asked respondents to prioritize 13 criteria they consider important when choosing an ERP system. While “fit and functionality” came out as most important, “ease of use” of the ERP system was ranked as the highest overall priority. Companies understand that having all the ERP functionality in the world is meaningless if employees can’t figure out how to use the system.

To further highlight the importance of an easy-to-use ERP system, the report found that survey respondents who identified themselves in the 18- to 36-year-old range stated they were twice as likely to seek different employment if they had usability challenges with their employer’s ERP system. When the survey took a deeper look at what was meant by “ease of use,” it uncovered the top three definitions as: the ability to minimize time to complete tasks; intuitive navigation; and easy access to the ERP system from anywhere, anytime.

How can the ERP system help diminish the generational divide?

Historically, it has only been a select few of employees who have needed to access or use the system as a part of their job. According to the Mint Jutras report, however, 55 percent of employees use the ERP system today, with 63 percent of employees using the ERP system at organizations with a cloud-based ERP solution.

Automotive manufacturers have the opportunity to use their ERP systems—which are arguably the backbone of any organization—as a tool to help bring their employees together and successfully meet  business goals.

ERP systems are now flexible enough to let users engage with the system in a way that makes the most sense for them. ERP software vendors have become increasingly sensitive to unique working styles and workplace expectations, and have begun to bring innovations forward to improve usability and address the look, feel and overall experience of using the ERP system.

The different working styles between Baby Boomers and Millennials are usually among the first things mentioned when talking about workplace generational challenges. These different working styles impact how employees interact with ERP systems.

For instance, an employee from the Baby Boomer generation likely learned how to do his job on one of the first ERP systems. As a result, he may be most comfortable navigating the menus, grids and tables that look most like the ERP system he learned to use. This staff member may also may prefer to use the software on his desktop computer, or even at a designated workstation set up only for interacting with the ERP system.

Millennials, however, bring different expectations to their work experience. They have been raised with mobile devices and the Internet, and are used to having everything they need to connect, communicate and navigate throughout the day in their pocket. This expectation extends to their work life as well, and they want to be able to access what they need to do their work wherever they may be—whether that is on the shop floor, in a coffee shop or in an airport.

With the trend toward workforce mobilization, a cloud-based ERP system has the distinct advantage of providing employees anytime, anywhere access to data and information residing in the ERP system. This increased ERP system access also enables the ERP system to play a bigger role in communication, collaboration and decision-making across the organization.

In addition to improving the ERP user experience on mobile devices, the connectivity, collaboration capabilities and added visibility within newer ERP solutions have great potential to help bridge the generational divide.

Collaborative communication tools now built into ERP systems—sometimes considered “social” tools—make it easier to search data within the ERP system; this allows employees to customize the user interface they want with only the tools they need to use within the ERP system; it also gives them the ability to have the system contact a user via text, e-mail or other outreach to alert them to a received invoice, product shipment or product delay; lastly, it fosters stronger collaboration among team members with easy access and better information transparency so everyone is aware of how projects are moving along and see where there help may be required before it’s asked of them.

Although the draftsman of 20 years ago may now be obsolete, the manufacturing industry wouldn’t be where it is today without his contributions. The same can be said for the evolution of the ERP system. Without the first “green screens,” we wouldn’t be where we are now with the mobile-first, consumer-like interfaces that serve as an entry point to even more computing power than before, accessible across devices.

This respect for where we’ve come from combined with an appreciation for where we are today serves as a solid foundation to bridge the generational divide in manufacturing. The ERP system is one tool automotive manufacturers have available to accommodate the varying working styles that—although different—still achieve the common workplace and automotive industry goals.  

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