Workforce Empowerment: The Silver Lining Behind Digital Transformation Investments in Manufacturing

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Coauthored by: Giuseppe Sugliano

Manufacturing businesses have discussed how the digital transformation trend will affect their evolution for at least a decade. But very few digitization initiatives have come to fruition. In fact, most fail. According to Harvard Business Review, an average of 87.5% of digital transformation projects never meet their objectives.

However, despite these early setbacks, organizations recognize that they cannot ignore the digitalization trends and remain competitive. Several key challenges have transformed the CPG business and forced changes to industrial processes and how humans interact with machines. These include:

  • Labor shortages and worker retention challenges: Even with the widespread proliferation of robots, most CPG facilities find themselves short of staff, with intense competition to hire from a limited pool of skilled workers;
  • Supply chain instability: Global events such as the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have disrupted supply chains and created new demands and challenges that require a reinvention of processes;
  • Loss of institutional knowledge: As more workers reach retirement age, they are leaving with valuable uncaptured knowledge on how production line processes can be optimized;
  • Emphasis on operational sustainability: Shareholders, financiers, customers, and regulators now demand aggressive reductions in energy consumption and CO2 emissions.
A male manager shares data information on a digital tablet to a male and female employee in a manufacturing facility. digital transformation
Digital transformation can alter the traditional roles of workers in a way that enables them to make informed business decisions.

How connected workers drive the digital transformation value

To overcome these barriers, CPG executives and plant managers must reconsider the nature of work within their plants and focus on how digital transformation can enrich the worker. While the factories of the future will have more automation, the inherent variability in the process of making food, beverages, personal care products, etc., will still require intervention and guidance from an educated and empowered workforce on the frontlines.

Furthermore, the desire for agility and resilience in a post-pandemic environment needs to acknowledge that these frontline workers represent the foundation for such capabilities. When this perspective is missed, organizations fall short of their digital transformation productivity targets because they focused too much on technological changes and not enough on the work culture. Rather than rapidly introducing new technologies, an effective digital transformation project involves altering the traditional roles of the workers in a way that enables them to make informed business decisions.

New-generation plants run on knowledge, and that knowledge comes from data

One key to success is allowing operators to look beyond just one narrow aspect of their machine and gain a more comprehensive understanding of the upstream and downstream processes that impact overall plant performance. Digital transformation should enable workers to evolve from simply executing rote activities to embracing enhanced roles where they act as information-driven managers of the business.

For example, digital tools can enable workers to decide on product quality by analyzing data to validate whether the product is ready for the next step. It can allow them to visualize how much energy or water is being consumed as products are processed and gives them the ability to determine the optimal timing for machine maintenance. Digital transformation, when correctly implemented, injects more value into worker activities by empowering workers to have a more significant influence on production results and operational cost savings.

As more digital technology is introduced into the plants, workers will gradually become more data savvy. The data they access and manipulate is used horizontally across the factory, impacting logistics, warehousing, pre-production and production, packaging, and product delivery. Data transforms the business, making it less siloed, hierarchical, and more collaborative.

Implementing people-centric digital transformation is not a one-size-fits-all approach – the nature of the industry, the corporate culture, and the geographical region of operation all make a big difference in how digital technologies should be applied. The common elements, however, involve training traditionally less skilled workers to become “problem solvers” and using data from dashboards to help those workers interpret what is happening inside their machines.

This new generation of workers is now comprised of connected workers−they use smart devices like tablets or HMIs to access data that impacts their day-to-day workflow and decision-making. Digital tools are essential, but less so than how the plant is organized. Leadership must enable a culture that adopts different ways of hiring and retaining people and enriching worker roles to maintain high levels of interest and motivation.

The human resource benefits of digital transformation

Effective digital transformation also provides valuable tools for capturing best practices across the entire lifecycle of plant operations. Undergoing regular intervals of training and communal knowledge capture minimizes human resource transition risks. And it maintains a consistent foundation when workers retire or change jobs.

Tools that drive these human resource benefits include:

  • Training tools: The new-generation training culture consists of more comprehensive knowledge management and the application of extended and virtual reality approaches. For new engineers coming in, for example, training can be performed using digital twin simulation tools that illustrate the impact of decisions on exact replicas of live plant situations (without affecting the performance of the live production systems);
  • Collaboration tools: Such tools enable workers to collaborate in real-time to share important production-related events, solve problems, and capture ideas. Tablets are used to access how-to videos, training guides, work instructions, and other digital knowledge needed to solve problems and capture best practices across daily activities;
  • Continuous improvement tools: As operators supervise their machines, portable tablets display dashboards highlighting workflow status and workflow instances. Integrated work task activity reporting and monitoring tools allow operators to conduct performance analysis, associate workflows with events, and receive proactive alerts on exceptions and KPIs.
  • Augmented reality tools:
    A new class of digital applications enables plant floor workers and trainees to leverage Extended Reality on portable tablets. The AVEVA XR solution, for example, combines Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), and Mixed Reality (MR) to help workers make better and faster decisions, digitizing work execution, to ensure best practice, prepare workers for safe and effective operations, improve work execution effectiveness with advanced mobility solution with AR and 3D technologies.

Timing is critical for the implementation of new technologies

The challenge for CPG manufacturers is to ensure that new digital technologies are introduced and made available at the right time in small steps. Working with an experienced partner like Schneider Electric will help to standardize the application of digital elements into plant operations so that operational agility can be bolstered to achieve production goals. To learn more, download our new digital transformation e-guide.  

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