How Digital Transformation Can Attract, Empower and Retain Workers

How Digital Transformation Can Attract, Empower and Retain Workers
How Digital Transformation Can Attract, Empower and Retain Workers

Industry 4.0 ushered in a new era of transition in many industries, including revolutionizing the way process manufacturers adopt new technologies to modernize their plants for more efficient management of operational procedures and product lifecycles. While there is no question that machines and advanced technologies have been at the center of this transition, it is now time to fully embrace Industry 5.0.  This next industrial revolution focuses on connecting man to machine. That means recognizing the importance of collaboration between humans and smart systems to further increase production efficiencies, operational visibility, and the opportunity to reduce costs to maintain a competitive advantage.
This people-centered approach to digital transformation brings workers and managers into the age of Industry 5.0. The adoption of new digital technologies should be tailored to the specific needs of personnel with a human-centric component. This makes adoption faster and easier because it has the end-user in mind from the outset. As digitalization is happening in manufacturing, it is important that intelligent systems do what they do best while seamlessly tapping into the best traits of humans and their creativity.

Lessons from the pandemic

Process manufacturers, interrupted by restrictions caused by the pandemic, applied creative workarounds to manage operations and protocols. Plants were operating with skeleton crews on the floor while being monitored by other personnel in offsite locations. Face-to-face collaboration was off the table, particularly when it came to knowledge sharing between shifts, a critical component in maintaining process safety. Plant communications were handled, in large part, by workers using mobile devices and apps integrated with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. The good news is that the requirements for these new workarounds elevated digital transformation from a ‘we’re working on it’ attitude to a higher priority.

The pandemic also drove the recognition and empowerment of workers. While Industry 4.0, with its focus on machine-to-machine connectivity, has been instrumental for automation, it has its limits by not recognizing the human factor as an integral and creative contributor to better performance. Machines deliver what they have been programmed to do but it is the people who contribute innovation and creativity. People are problem solvers and adapt quickly to handle any unprecedented situations brought about by the interruptions of business as usual.  

But the pandemic effect also brought other issues to the table, including employee retention. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cites a turnover rate in manufacturing of nearly 40% in 2021, down from 44% in 2020, but still concerning. This "great resignation" as it’s been dubbed in the industry, means that manufacturers are losing a treasure trove of valuable knowledge about systems, processes, anomalies, and strategies that cannot be passed down to others in the plant or to new workers who may come on board.

Deloitte, in its 2023 Manufacturing Outlook report, cites this issue as a top priority. To paraphrase, job openings are near an all-time high in spite of record numbers of new hires. But voluntary separations are outpacing layoffs and discharges, indicating that substantial workforce churn is reducing operational efficiency and margins.

Advanced technologies bring new opportunities

Employee morale and recognition of the contributions an employee brings to the enterprise are just two areas that have been cited as reasons for worker discontent and attrition. The application of advanced technologies, however, can help overcome these concerns. As Industry 5.0 focuses on the importance of the human factor, it empowers people to use their natural talents and capabilities to increase collaborative efforts between people and machines. People-centric technology, in other words, technology that has been designed with people in mind, enables organizational teams to improve productivity, cost efficiencies, quality and safety. 

As technology continues to be integrated on the plant floor level, savvy manufacturers will support programs to upskill and reskill workers in new technology-supported processes, which inspires opportunities for organic career growth and job satisfaction. Mentorships, where younger workers can gain skills with training by seasoned staff, support team morale by helping to recognize how human-to-machine collaboration contributes to the overall success of the enterprise.

Transforming to a high-performance culture

While there are a number of critical areas that impact productivity, quality, and safety, one stands out in particular - the essential knowledge transfer that occurs between shifts. A people-centered approach looks beyond digitalization and considers the needs of people using these tools. For example, what do they need to know and when? What kinds of decisions do they need to make and who else needs to be involved to facilitate critical decisions?

Consider a day shift technician in a chemical processing plant. At the start of their day, they need to quickly come up to speed with the status of the processes inherited from the night shift and what, if any, next steps are required. They also need to know if there are any problems to troubleshoot, new directives from management, or safety or maintenance issues that need attention. While some information can be conveyed during a shift handover meeting, other data tends to be scattered among logs and documents, often maintained in siloed areas of the plants–unshared and not transparent.

However, a centralized knowledge repository, driven by AI capabilities, will have collected all data and observations from other team members across shifts to provide the information needed in an easily understandable format. Information could then be acted upon with the assurance that decisions are made with accuracy. Think of this digital knowledge center as a kind of controls cockpit. It streamlines data collection and information transfer while giving teams vital knowledge to quickly get up to speed with important information pertinent to their particular roles and responsibilities.

Future outlook

 AI is starting to reinvent intelligent manufacturing, as evident from the new applications and functionality being offered within enterprise platforms. For instance, now available are AI smart search capabilities that can deliver a boost to a manufacturer’s knowledge repository. It can improve plant performance by quickly finding solutions based on the history of documented tribal knowledge from plant operations teams. The specialized AI algorithms’ ability to retrieve the most relevant information, will accelerate operations and help teams recover from disruptions by immediately identifying appropriate fixes. Also, by capturing this knowledge and putting it into a repository means this critical knowledge stays with the company. It helps safeguard the enterprise from any issues that come from unexpected changes to the workforce as well as helps people to change positions more effectively. New hires get up to speed faster. Lastly, it makes it easier for people to share their own instructions and observations with anyone within the company–from plant floor workers to the C-suite.  
So, the outlook for digital transformation driven by Industry 5.0 will involve a re-emphasis on the importance the workforce plays in manning machines and in adopting a digital transformation. The Deloitte report indicates investments in new technology combined with a focus on attracting and retaining talent are among the key drivers for manufacturers as they look toward growth and increased productivity in 2023.

About The Author

Andreas Eschbach is CEO and founder of eschbach.

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