From ongoing workforce challenges to the increasing government investment in renewable energy, we’re living in a time of both tremendous change and opportunity for manufacturers.

As discussed throughout various sessions at our first-ever annual Operations Calling™ conference in September, leaders in the industry are maintaining their competitive edge by finding the right balance of adopting new technology and upskilling their workers. One particular session that truly dove into this topic was “Policy in Practice: Overcoming the Latest Challenges Operators Face,” a panel moderated by Liz Reynolds, a lecturer at MIT and former White House policymaker.

Panel participants discuss how to overcome the latest challenges operators face.

Throughout the session, the panel participants — Audrey Van de Castle, Director of Digital Transformation at Stanley Black & Decker; Ammar Asfour, General Manager of Print Farm Automation at Formlabs; and Nico Polcaro, Production Technician at Inkbit — discussed everything from how to capitalize on the latest industry shifts to lessons they’ve learned throughout the digital transformation process.

Here are three key takeaways from the panel:

1. Automation Alone Will Not Solve the Latest Manufacturing Challenges

While automation has a role to play in the modern factory environment, all three panel participants spoke about how a successful digital transformation initiative comes down to finding the right balance between automating manual or dangerous processes and augmenting your workforce to do more complex, high-value tasks.

“It’s very easy to go out and get a big machine that does that one thing… but there’s no two production line that are alike, right, and there are a lot of small components that can fit together to make the automation and I generally think the biggest challenge is… having enough of the right trained, skilled people that can put these together in many places,” said Asfour. “You need kind of the right balance of someone who can look at the workflow, understand it, but also kind of help put a few automation pieces together.”

Van de Castle agreed, highlighting the value of leveraging robots to tackle dangerous, physically draining work. “What we really see automation for is how do we augment our workers and how do we take them out of situations that we don’t want them to be in,” she said.

Furthermore, Van de Castle stressed the need to think through which of your processes are actually working well — before you consider how to digitize them. “One of the mantras is we aren’t going to automate waste… we don’t want to automate a process that’s a bad process to begin with,” she explained.

Polcaro agreed, stating that “ don’t want to automate something that’s poor, but I would like to see more automation when it makes sense, like the right thing to do versus getting it done.”

As the youngest member of the group (he has only been in the workforce for two years), Polcaro highlighted that the new generation of workers does not buy into the widespread fear that automation will replace them. “I can’t wait for the robots to take my job so I can do something more useful,” he explained.

2. Today’s Frontline Operators Have Valuable Input Regarding the Production Process

Another major theme throughout the discussion was around the need to recognize that your frontline operators are your most valuable asset.

When asked about how to successfully integrate new technology into an organization, Van de Castle highlighted the value of starting close to the process and considering how to enable the frontline workers. She stressed the need to “...mak[e] sure that the people that are doing the process day in and day out have a voice and a say in what solution is getting built for them.”

This is particularly critical when it comes to ensuring the long-term adoption and use of the new technology. “I really think empowering those folds on the frontline, on the shop floor, with a digital tool that they can make a difference themselves with is a really key success factor in making sure that what you’re deploying digital is actually successful and adopted at the site,” said Van de Castle.

As an operator himself, Polcaro wholeheartedly agreed with this sentiment, highlighting that this workforce has a unique perspective on how to “make things run smoother, make [the technology] more usable, make it more practical to have in the factory floor.” After all, as Polcaro stressed, people who are doing a task over and over again “get really good at figuring out the best way to do something.”

3. There’s a Growing Need to Support Adaptability and Standardization

In light of the ongoing industry shifts, adaptability continues to be a competitive differentiator. Leading manufacturers are finding ways to capitalize on change and see it as an opportunity for growth — rather than a challenge to overcome.

As a result, it’s increasingly critical to find technology solutions that empower your team to be agile: “...what I was doing two weeks ago is not the same thing I’m doing now and being able to change that with Tulip is super super useful to be adaptable as we learn new things and figure out better ways to do everything,” said Polcaro.

At the same time, manufacturers need to find ways to maintain standardized processes across sites — allowing them to collect and use consistent data to drive informed decisions. But this can be a challenge.

When asked what to do if your high-performing teams don’t follow your processes, Van de Castle stressed that you might not have the right processes in the first place. “I think that you have to find that the reason or the problem or the value prop for them to adhere to your standards, and if you don’t have a value prop, your standard’s wrong… if the right way to do something is not what your high-performing team does, you need to look what your high-performing team does and adopt that as a standard potentially,” she said.

For manufacturing sectors that produce a variety of customized products, Asfour highlighted that “we need the ability to standardize and empower and minimize the amount of work that the frontline operators are doing in that sense.” Ultimately, that comes down to minimizing clicks, which is not always possible with off-the-shelf systems.

“Many of the kind of off-the-shelf systems that we try to use and look at are very focused on the Internet of Things,” said Asfour. “And when we ask like ‘okay what happens when the build or the parts is not connected to the machine?’ and the answer usually was ‘well you know, click click, open the window, click click, drop-down menus, click click,’ and you know you've lost me, right, like you’re way too many clicks beyond what we need, especially at a high volume and a high build.”

More Insights on the Future of Manufacturing

Interested in learning more about how to empower your workforce and turn the latest manufacturing challenges into opportunities? The “Policy in Practice: Overcoming the Latest Challenges Operators Face” panel was just one of over 60 sessions included in Operations Calling 2023.

Check out our selection of on-demand session recordings and save your seat for Operations Calling 2024.

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