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Even before COVID-19 hit, manufacturing faced pressure to up its digital game. Competing with tech, finance and other sectors for young talent was growing more difficult, and global competition was relentlessly driving down price points and profits on traditional goods.

The onset of the pandemic highlighted the industry’s vulnerabilities. Supply chains were exposed as overly reliant on a single region. While workers in many industries needed only a phone, a laptop and Zoom or Microsoft Teams to resume work, many manufacturers shut down for extended periods, their shop floors and assembly lines at the mercy of broken supply chains, distancing guidelines and other imperatives.

So, if the writing was on the wall before COVID-19, the pandemic has added underlining and an exclamation point: Manufacturers that haven’t done so already must embrace digital — and fast.

But where to begin?

We believe that workforce transformation may be an ideal stepping stone in the larger shift to Industry 4.0 — but that’s true if, and only if, it is done within the context of what the business’s needs are as they pertain to its value chain. (To learn more and read case studies about manufacturers making strides, see the joint Cognizant/Microsoft paper, “Creating the Modern Manufacturing Workforce.”)

Attracting the next generation

Excelling in the future will require employees with top digital skills, and this is an area in which investing in workforce technology could provide a boost. Manufacturing is one of the most established industries in today’s business landscape. This maturity brings many benefits, but also some drawbacks; manufacturing’s history and pragmatic nature don’t exactly add to its sex appeal, in a workplace context.

The industry faces “an acute skills gap,” and clients tell us that this is exacerbated in the digital arena, with top tech minds applying their talents to other industries. One way manufacturing can address this gap is to match the tech offerings that appeal not just to millennials, but also to workers of all ages who are eager to embrace the latest tools.

The new workplace

Post-pandemic, remote management and collaboration will remain key parts of working life. Work from home (WFH) and reduced human presence on the factory floor are hardly new; what is now clearer than ever is that manufacturers must keep investing in technology and talent to maintain productivity, preserve corporate culture and drive professional development. Going forward, manufacturers need tools that deliver a consistent feature set and user experience regardless of platform and physical location.

Early in the COVID-19 lockdown it was suggested that many, perhaps most, organizations would not permit workers to return to a physical work environment anytime soon. The passage of time has led to a more mixed reality, especially where manufacturing is concerned — despite the march of technology, the shop floor still tends to require a large number of people, often in close proximity to one another. Moreover, studies find that most people want to get back to their physical workspace. Nevertheless, the industry cannot and should not forfeit the gains it has made in WFH and other geographically dispersed work. Technology tools must reflect this location-agnosticism.

The new workforce

When manufacturers audit their technology and business initiatives to rationalize investment, they often find that reskilling their workforce earns a high priority. As a 2019 report from Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work put it, “blue-collar work isn’t what it used to be.”

Consider, the authors noted, today’s factory floors, layered with sensors and algorithms sequencing intricate hand-offs between teams of people and banks of machines. In such environments, newly empowered workers aren’t limited to routine physical tasks; armed with the ability to exploit data, analytics or machine learning, they’re adding value in innovative ways, using human insight and judgment to master sophisticated technical process work with skill and flair.

This new category of worker is exemplified by the Takumi Masters at Lexus, who meld detailed knowledge of digital processes with old-school experience and an artisan’s touch. At Lexus, to be a Takumi is to have earned a high honor — and to be rewarded appropriately.

We believe this is the evolutionary direction of what we’ll call the Digital Craftsperson. Unfortunately, not enough enterprises are creating environments in which digital craftspeople can thrive, in spite of a clear need; this is the type of investment that a careful self-assessment can lead to. Failing to prime the workforce is a severe risk. The technology isn’t slowing down, and the competitive pressure is only going to ratchet up. The time to act is now.

Rethinking data

The democratization of data demonstrates how changes made with the workforce in mind can and should filter up through the organization to deliver value in myriad ways. Through data lakes or other means, forward-looking manufacturers are creating a “single source of truth” so that workers across departments — customer service, operations, finance — can maintain consistency, confident that they’re all singing from the same hymnal.

Before it can be democratized, data must be modernized; data in older formats doesn’t lend itself to web services-enabled forms of interoperability and sharing across silos, business functions and ecosystems. Once addressed, data modernization does far more than enable employees. Properly aggregated, data is far easier to store, use and share. That allows businesses to transform what was once an expensive burden into an asset that helps leaders drive revenue growth, contain costs and increase business value.

The workforce as a stepping stone

In addition to the myriad benefits that reinventing the manufacturing workforce offers on its own merits, we believe that it’s an excellent entry point into a broader and deeper digital journey. Many of the processes and technologies required to address workforce issues (embracing new apps, the democratization of data, knowledge capture, humans working closely with machines, geographical flexibility) will serve as a pathway to an overall transformation.

Once a manufacturer determines that workforce enablement is a priority, what steps should it take? Our thoughts:

  • Begin with a guiding philosophy and agreed-on key performance indicators (KPIs) to ensure that all investment delivers business value.
  • Execute and communicate a safe buildings program so employees know that when they enter a facility, they do so with minimal risk.
  • Tweak corporate culture and management strategies to recognize the new reality of WFH.
  • Attract leading candidates by implementing technology that appeals to millennials and other next-generation workers.
  • Improve worker productivity through automation and knowledge harvesting.
  • Put in place knowledge-capture and knowledge-sharing tools to ensure that employees’ experience is integrated into systems and passed on.
  • Embrace career-long training to keep employees’ skills up to date.
  • Offer career and compensation paths that recognize and reward newer roles.

The manufacturing industry is at a critical juncture regarding digital change. Rather than launching halfhearted modernization efforts in a handful of unrelated departments or business units, leaders should create a unifying vision, communicate that vision throughout the enterprise with full-throated support, and move to execute it. If an audit shows that digitally enabling the workforce is the right place to begin, then it’s an initiative that can bring lasting benefits to the business as a whole.

To learn more, visit the Manufacturing section of our website or contact us.