For the last decade, industrial automation has been spearheading digital transformation and ushered in a revolution in almost every relevant sector. From agriculture to consulting to professional services and even venture capital, automation has enabled companies to achieve competitive advantages through increasing productivity, efficiency, and accelerated production cycle. In manufacturing, automation can increase production growth by 1.4% annually, helping some manufacturers achieve significant competitive advantages. However, this soon will no longer be the case.

Over-automation is becoming a real problem for manufacturing companies

Rapid commoditization of technology is making automation tools more accessible to everyone. The worldwide adoption rate in 2021 reached 20%, almost doubling that of 2019 across sectors. In the manufacturing sector alone, robots are presently used as an integral part of 44.9% of the respondents' assembly and manufacturing facilities, according to a poll by The Business Research Company. A side effect of this widespread adoption of automation is that it is no longer a competitive advantage for manufacturers. Clearly, expensive machinery is still a big investment decision and a challenge for smaller firms, but overall, access to automation is more and more widely available.

Rapid adoption of manufacturing technologies has led to many executives purchasing tech not vetted by their workers, only to surprisingly find expensive machinery and robots packed away in the back room. Most commonly, the machines either stopped working or are found to intrude on daily work. In these cases, the use of machines slows things down instead of speeds things up like it promised.

More accurately, the competitive advantage that these machines created is not sustainable. The world is changing rapidly, demanding instant responses and adaptation, which technology alone cannot provide. On top of that, technology only ever provided efficiency improvements, at times exponential in nature because they were based on an initial innovation in process speed, accuracy, or a new capability–but rarely provide innovative, adaptive solutions as conditions change. With today’s marketplace, consumer and business demands evolve quickly. Machines are best at scaling repetitive tasks. Making adjustments is a human skills advantage.

Refocusing on the manufacturing workforce to bring sustainable changes and continuous improvements

In the midst of excessive automation, there is a need to re-focus on the workforce to bring sustainable changes and continuous improvements. This does not negate automation, but qualifies its use to maximize impact.

Managing automation well is a formidable challenge. Four firms we studied in our upcoming book Augmented Lean: A Human-Centric Framework for Managing Frontline Operations, DMG MORI, Johnson & Johnson, Dentsply, and Stanley Black & Decker, have successfully used augmented lean management principles to empower their employees and achieve efficiencies but they have done it in distinct ways which we detail in the book. What they have in common is an understanding that your workers, not machines, will drive your progress and innovation, and commitment to prioritizing workers over machine.

Learn more about augmented lean in the upcoming book, or watch the webinar here.

Automation is only as good as the person operating it, thus workers remain your most important asset. Workers possess some unique qualities compared to machines, which include observational skills, adaptability, common sense, contextual and situational awareness, good judgment, decision-making ability, and innovation potential.

In a competitive workforce landscape with a prevalent war for talent and an enduring lack of skilled workers (2.1 millions skilled jobs in manufacturing need to be filled by 2025), attracting, retaining, and empowering your workers will become your competitive advantage. Those workers need to be empowered in order to work in an emerging environment that is highly challenging. The traditional answer has been to provide additional skills and to try to reskill workers. That tends to backfire.

Skills must be sought by the workers themselves. Work instructions need to be provided just in time, at the moment of need, and without interfering with the work process. That’s where unobtrusive, digital work instructions come in. The work process itself must also make sense. Workers who grew up with smartphones and contemporary society will no longer accept outdated user interfaces, overly complex task lists and instructions, and top-down leadership styles. Get rid of that, and manufacturing will, yet again, be the place to be.

Automation to augmentation: shifting from process-centric to worker-centric to build scalable systems and sustainable competitive advantages

Your workers should be your focal point when it comes to building and implementing an operations system, and their pain points should be your priority. It’s essential that we reskill, upskill, and enable the workforce with productive, intuitive, and purpose-built technologies that make it easier for them to perform their job duties while also supporting an innovative and technology-rich environment that attracts and retains the best talent.

To gain competitive advantages now, you need to shift from automation to augmentation. There is no time to lose because workers are yet treated as knowledgeable, valuable, and independent, will be somebody else’s employees soon. At the end of the day, what’s emerging is a hybrid workplace where the most competitive organizations leverage an augmented workforce that is able to squeeze the most out of machine interfaces and readjust their operations on the fly based on incoming analytics from machines, sensors, markets, and fellow workers and by applying common sense.

It has been said that in the emerging manufacturing landscape, the operator is king. Maybe so, except the best organizations are actually democracies of sorts, leveraging everyone’s skills in equal measure. If you assume that, with augmented lean management, you might get a full 10% more productivity out of each of your (many) employees instead of only 20% more out of your (hopefully very few) executives and managers, the total effect on productivity is far greater by investing in workers. On a societal level, this kind of shift of emphasis is likely to lead to massive innovation effects across the economy.

Shifting to human-centric operations means democratizing the shopfloor and empowering your frontline workers to make impactful decisions. For this to happen, manufacturers need a system that is flexible, scalable, and accessible enough to support everyone in your plant, including operators, industrial engineers, and plant managers. This is also where traditional MES have consistently failed manufacturers. As costly and disruptive as they are, traditional MES are very inflexible, requiring time and effort to implement any changes to your processes, slowing improvements and curbing innovations.

Instead of traditional MES solutions, manufacturers should adopt operations platforms to balance agility and utilization of existing investments. A no-code, app-based platform increases the agility of your operations by empowering citizen developers to solve problems and make decisions, and reducing reliance on IT team for deployment. As manufacturers can build apps as extensively and as fast as they need, they can quickly implement changes without disrupting the entire existing system or confining themselves to an expensive and unscalable MES solution.

Another area where operation platforms win over point solutions is their ability to empower all persona involved in the production line. Process engineers can buid apps as fast and extensively as they want to bring changes to the production line quickly. Frontline workers can easily pick up new processes and communicate feedback to engineers. Plant managers can access real-time data and gain full visibility of the plant.

By focusing on solving critical pain points with apps, an operation platform ensures that workers remain the focal point of any process changes and create a loop of continuous improvements that can future-proof your operations.


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