Another year, another fresh start to develop the workforce and implement new technologies. The best workforce to develop is the workforce that is already on the payroll. The best technologies to implement are those with the highest likelihood of success and ROI. The best combination of workforce and technology is one that pairs an eager workforce with empowering technology. Here are a few tips for using the workforce to its best advantage and adding technology to benefit the company and workers alike.
Training: Keep the momentum going year-round
Some manufacturers view winter months as crunch time. Increased work orders for the holidays combined with employee absences during cold/flu season can make winter seem like a good time to pause workforce training. Not so, asserts Rob Bright, CEO of Cloud Assess, a learning management system provider.
“Choosing to pause vital training, even temporarily, is likely to pose challenges in the long-term,” said Bright. An interruption in training might well impact the plant’s productivity and output quality and could affect worker safety. “The challenge,” Bright said, “is ensuring this essential training is continued effectively and consistently, regardless of the demands of the business.”¹
Bright suggests that employers add micro-learning to their training strategy. With micro-learning, training is focused on delivering a single learning outcome in a short, sweet session – a viable option for maintaining a plant’s training headway during the winter. Micro-learning might recap/refresh topics from prior training or introduce topics to be covered in more depth when the regular training schedule resumes.
Automation infusion: Buy-in is pivotal
Robots, cobots and automation are attractive as tools to up output, enhance quality and reduce safety issues, but too much gushing about the wonders of technology can leave workers feeling like technology is the enemy and that there is no future for humans in manufacturing.
As Andreas Koenig of technology company ProGlove put it: “Robotics, artificial intelligence and automation are gifts, but if we just slap them upon our organizations, we do very little to reap their rewards. Instead, we may end up vilifying the blessings they may be able to deliver.”²
Rather than merely decreeing and installing automation, manufacturers can enlist workers to participate in the automation planning, listen to their experience-backed input and earn their trust for the new technologies. Having workers who drive automation improvements is better than having those who merely accept the improvements, while having those who only accept technological advances is better than having workers who resist or, worse yet, undermine what they view as threatening automation initiatives.
Hidden talent: generalists and the big picture
When manufacturers have generalists in the workforce, the thing to do is tap that general knowledge and experience, as opposed to insisting that a generalist buckle down in one specialized area.
A generalist’s understanding of a variety of market sectors, or of an array of manufacturing plant departments, or of a range of fabrication techniques is a boon. Not only can a generalist see a bigger picture than a specialist, but a generalist often can also speak many industry “languages,” making an employee of this caliber someone who can be a liaison between plant and customer, between plant and supplier, and among a plant’s departments.
The new hire who has scant experience in a plant’s production niche but who has worked in logistics, shipping and warehousing is a new hire who already can understand and speak three valuable languages. The new hire who doesn’t know squat about manufacturing but who climbed rungs in the engineering career ladder, has evaluated and installed software, and has an inquiring mind could be a great player on the project to upgrade the plant’s CAD/CAM system.
Automation infusion: robotics for zombie work,
humans for the squirrelly stuff
ProGlove’s Andreas Koenig has the chops to recommend robotics solutions, but he is just as strong when it comes to valuing the workforce. “The human worker,” said Koenig, “is probably the most underrated factor on the shop floor and in global supply chains.” Koenig noted some uniquely human qualities: a desire to learn, a willingness to collaborate and a work ethic to deliver that extra oomph to resolve issues quickly.
“All of this is instrumental to make operations work because we cannot run businesses only on technology,” Koenig explained. He stresses the importance of choosing automation projects thoughtfully, with an eye toward helping workers better interact with the machines – production machines and automation aids – that surround them.²
When manufacturers focus on implementing technology solutions to free up workers from boring, repetitive and strenuous jobs, those workers now are available to do more of what humans do so much better than machines. Only people can stay ahead of or on top of emerging production issues, jump into action or recruit help to solve a problem, and think about how to make their own jobs better while simultaneously improving operations and benefitting the company’s bottom line.
Hidden talent: Find the experts and let them share
In “Harnessing Unsung Employee Know-how,”³ consulting firm SUMMi7 founder Eric Strafel discussed the value of creating knowledge networks in manufacturing plants. Sprinkled throughout any company are individuals with an intense interest in and a deep understanding of a range of specialized topics. But if the company is unaware of this expertise, it remains a hidden talent that could otherwise have been tapped.
Strafel cited the topic of blockchain, posing the hypothetical situation of a customer expressing a keen interest in using this technology. The sales and service departments of the plant know nothing about blockchain, and they bump the request up to their managers. “The problem is, those middle managers probably know as much, if not less, about blockchain than the frontline workers,” Strafel wrote. “The manager might tell the customer something like, ‘I’m not sure that we can help,’ or they might promise to look into it, but never get around to it. The customer either never gets a solution or has to wait for it. The longer they wait, the more opportunity a competitor has to offer the customer what they need and snag their business.”
Somewhere in that company, though, there is a wonk who knows this topic inside and out. Strafel recommends that companies do a treasure hunt to find their hidden talent and their obscure experts, and then create a venue for sharing that knowledge. Managers can identify market trends and technology advances that are likely to be important to the business or its customers, survey the workforce for gurus, and then create a casual knowledge transfer occasion – maybe a “lunch and learn” – that uncovers hidden expertise and expands a company-wide network of knowledge.
For 2023, resolve to keep up with the training, implement rewarding automation initiatives and discover hidden talent. Best wishes for a prosperous new year.
- Helen Sydney Adams. “How manufacturers can integrate training during the winter,” Manufacturing. October 13, 2022. https://manufacturingdigital.com/procurement-and-supply-chain/how-manufacturers-can-integrate-training-during-the-winter.
- Andreas Koenig. “You Can’t Run a Business on Technology Alone,” Material Handling & Logistics. June 24, 2022. https://www.mhlnews.com/technology-automation/article/21245234/you-cant-run-a-business-on-technology-alone.
- Eric Strafel. “Harnessing Unsung Employee Know-how,” Material Handling. November 26, 2021. https://www.mhlnews.com/labor-management/article/21181343/harnessing-unsung-employee-knowhow.