Digitally Transforming the Manufacturing Workforce

As digital transformation gains momentum, 87 percent of UK manufacturers say that they are ready to invest in new technologies which will boost productivity

Yet, PwC’s recent Global Digital Operations Study found that UK firms are lagging behind the global average for technology adoption. While there may be a number of reasons for the low digital readiness of the sector, such as lack of clear vision, and fears of uncertainty around Brexit, a growing concern is also the lack of access to relevant skills.

It’s been suggested that over one third of skills considered important in today’s workforce are likely to no longer be relevant in the near future. Manufacturers will soon require quite different expertise from their workforce to master new technology. According to a 2018 report by Accenture Strategy, businesses that fail to upskill their workforces so they can effectively collaborate with modern machines and technology face the risk of missing out on revenue and growth.

Despite the evident importance of skills development, the majority of UK manufacturers do not provide annual formal, accredited training to more than a quarter of their workforce. Yet, challenging and training employees to acquire new expertise can be a cost-effective way to manage staff resourcing, provide a boost to employee engagement, and ultimately have a positive impact on a company’s productivity.

There are several areas manufacturers should consider when reviewing the training needs of their workforce and providing opportunities for upskilling.

Breaking down barriers between departments

With the current trend for automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies, it is time to re-imagine work practices and stop relying on working in operational silos that have been created around job descriptions. Instead, manufacturers need to review tasks—including labelling, packaging, and shipping—rather than job roles, to reap the benefits of digital data sharing. Software platforms, such as modern enterprise resource planning (ERP), provide employees across departments with real-time information and a 360-degree picture of what’s happening in the business.

By allocating tasks to both machines and people, manufacturers can ensure an efficient level of automation, freeing up employees’ time to focus on new, less manual and more skilled tasks that deliver greater value to the business.

Identifying where upskilling needs to happen

Beefing up engineering talent on the shop floor is, without a doubt, vital; however, skills gaps higher up in the business are just as pressing. Manufacturers should therefore think about technical knowledge and skills gaps, but also consider potential gaps in management and leadership skills. In fact, Stanton Chase’s 2017 Global Industrial Executive Survey shows that for 30 percent of companies, the biggest challenge in implementing industrial innovation is a lack of technical skills, but 20 percent say the same of leadership skills such as change management.

It is worth remembering that leadership skills and human ingenuity will become more important than technical knowledge, and as we dive deeper into Industry 4.0 this will become clearer. Bringing in a development and training specialist can help manufacturers perform a skills gap analysis to ensure that any training plan is not only going to address the current pressure points, but also future-proof the company.

Aligning training to the overarching business strategy

Forward-thinking leadership teams are developing their workforce upskilling strategy—a task that has historically been the responsibility of HR—as an integral part of their strategic business planning process. This planning process includes a comprehensive review of how external trends are affecting existing structures, jobs and skills across the business. It considers which roles are strategic and core to the business, which ones will appear, and which will change or disappear completely.

Technology can play a key role in this strategic planning process, using real-time, data-driven insight to analyse and review where training is required across an entire manufacturing business. Specifically, software such as modern enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), and manufacturing execution systems (MES), can deliver actionable insight on a company-wide scale—from core business processes, to interactions with customers and manufacturing operations.

By using the insights that data from these systems can offer, businesses can uncover opportunities to educate the workforce at every level.

In addition, using new technologies can also help drive recruitment. Recent research from Epicor Software revealed that nearly half (41 percent) of young people want to work with the latest innovations, demonstrating that implementing new technologies can make businesses very attractive to an emerging pool of new, digitally-skilled talent.

This underpins the need to implement training in time for the arrival of these new technologies on the shop floor, for both existing and incoming staff—it could even become the new competitive advantage in the Industry 4.0 era. Manufacturers need to do their research to understand which are going to be the key skills profiles needed for future success, and then develop a people-centric work environment to help the business thrive.

Understanding the scale and timeframes

Helping employees to upskill in this fast-changing world of work also needs to happen at speed and to scale. The skills revolution that we are seeing goes hand-in-hand with innovations, and as new technologies emerge, the skills requirements will change. In order to keep pace with changes in the sector, manufacturers need to consider upskilling an ongoing long-term investment and develop strategies for continuous upskilling, or ‘lifelong learning’ of their employees.

This upskilling process does not have to mean traditional classroom-based training. In this digital age, personalised learning opportunities, such as on-demand training and e-learning, allow manufacturers to cater for a large workforce where individual employees are at different stages of learning and acceptance of new technologies.

As the pace of technological change increases, manufacturers need to act to ensure they are not constrained by an increasing gap between supply and demand for talent. To address the growing skills gap, smart organisations will consider turning to their current workforce and investigating the transferable talent and skills it holds.

Technologies like modern ERP and MES solutions are fast becoming the foundation for digital transformation in manufacturing by functioning as the fabric that connects people, processes, data and things in an intelligent and strategic manner. A skilled and agile workforce that can successfully use these technologies can enable manufacturers to rise to the challenges presented by Industry 4.0. These companies will then, in turn, be in a strong position to navigate the ever-changing economic and international business environment, improve productivity, and drive future business growth.

About the Author

Andy Coussins is senior vice president and head of international, Epicor Software. Epicor Software Corporation provides industry-specific business software designed around the needs of manufacturing, distribution, retail, and services organizations. More than 45 years of experience with our customers’ unique business processes and operational requirements is built into every solution―in the cloud, hosted, or on premises.