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Factory of the future – Smart factories need a smart workforce

(Image credit: Future)

Industry 4.0 has been a hot topic for quite some time. In times of digitisation, the question is no longer whether the manufacturing industry needs to transform, but how quickly they can. In fact, digitisation has the potential to transform the whole industry and provides various approaches to optimise production systems regarding increased efficiency, quality assurance or product personalisation. Businesses are currently working on implementation strategies and first steps have already been taken to kick-off the transformation. However, there is no consistent blueprint for a Factory 4.0 or Factory of the Future. Basically, the spotlight will always be on the correct handling of data and knowledge along the entire value stream from the supplier, through material preparation, assembly, packaging, and shipment to the customer.

Specialised, trained workforce of the future required

Once this is implemented successfully, businesses would require a specialised workforce: The workforce of the future will require the discipline to fulfil certain tasks and it needs a different skillset than today (or in the past). This is a definite challenge because dedicated trainings cannot be provided selectively, rather the whole workforce has to be included and prepared – this includes both the already existing workforce as well as the young professionals who just graduated and are ready to enter the job market. But what is the ideal education and strategy for businesses? What are these skills for the workforce of the future that we need to focus on? Simply put: there are many courses for Machine Learning, TensorFlow etc., but how can employees learn how to use wearables in their daily job, provide effective instructions to robots and cobots or repair a motor without formal training but by step by step visual guidance?

The workforce of the future learns in a different way

As a first step, businesses need to define the exact skillset needed for their very own Factory of the Future. As a second step, dedicated courses and material such as mockups, case studies, projects etc. need to be defined and developed. Important to note in this context is: workers of the future will be Millennials and Generation Z who will learn differently. There is a need for immersive, intuitive content that is amenable to be consumed on different (mobile) devices and screens and the content itself needs to be always on, always available. Finally, the integration of a trustworthy and strong partner who can define the right mechanisms to train the workforce can be an option to get the most out of the investment.

As innovative and digital the Factory of the Future might be with all its complex new technologies, businesses should consider that those who will be operating the factory are not dedicated technology specialists but “normal” employees specialising in their respective fields – it is crucial that this is taken into account when developing trainings and materials. When trainings are too complex, this might not only negatively influence the workforce’s motivation to evolve and hamper progress, but also the complete day-to day-operation – and thus, the business itself.

The key elements to focus on will be:

  • Understanding and interpreting reports / charts – Factories of the Future will be more and more data driven
  • Wearables / gaming experience – Factories of the Future will rely on augmented and mixed reality to improve productivity
  • Wearables / gaming experience – Factories of the Future will rely on augmented and mixed reality to improve productivity
  • Wearables / gaming experience – Factories of the Future will rely on augmented and mixed reality to improve productivity

The factory of the future will always rely on people

It is also highly important that the workforce understands that digitisation is not a threat to their jobs – on the contrary, it provides the potential to innovate and grow their skills and do more challenging tasks. These might change and new skills need to be acquired to be able to keep up with the transformation and compete in the work environment; but a Factory of the Future will never be 100 per cent autonomous – at least not in the foreseeable future – and a dedicated workforce will always be required to keep operations and the business running and successful. Autonomous technologies can cater to only what is repeatable. The ability to innovate on products, respond to markets and cater to the experience that the product creates would be an important aspect. Newer versions of products will have to be rolled out with advanced capabilities with a shorter time to market.

The Factories of the Future will be far more data-driven and agile. How quickly you can switch between product configurations, what a company can produce on the same assembly line will determine the pace at which these factories can respond to newer product demands. To make this a reality , businesses need a workforce with the right skill-set and train them continuously to be able to realise and implement new tasks and processes quickly – for instance, there are 400 different drill styles, an assembly line worker should know the different configurations and make the right decisions based on market response.

When it comes to the Factories of the Future – besides the implementation of new, innovative technologies as 3D, automation, Machine Learning and Virtual / Augmented Reality – the workforce is an important pillar. But training the workforce once is not enough: Learning should be a recurring process here with the goal to provide employees with the right skills and confidence to adapt and react quickly.

Nitesh Bansal, Senior Vice President & Global Head Engineering Services, Infosys