The Future of the Digital Workforce in Manufacturing

Apart from radically disrupting the core manufacturing processes, the 4th Industrial Revolution has brought forward many speculations and concerns about the future of work. Clearly, AI, robotic process automation, big data analytics, industrial IoT and the use of a digital workforce in manufacturing are set to impact the job market in a big way. Despite doomsday predictions revolving around skyrocketing unemployment rates, it looks like human employees will be playing a key part in the digital era. 

Building a digital workforce implies that the human workforce will have to undergo a radical transformation of functions and requirements. There are jobs that will be automated, jobs created by automation as well as jobs that can’t be replaced by technology.

In this article, we will explore the transformative effects that digitization will have on the present day workforce and focus on measures that companies have to take to propel this change.

How digitization will reshape the manufacturing jobs skill sets

Robotics in manufacturing and automated systems are currently taking over many human functions and job roles, which means the skill sets of human employees will have to change – at times, quite radically. As of today, manufacturers are reporting on the expanding digital skills gap in their workforce.

In 2018, a study conducted by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute estimated that the rate of unfilled jobs is set to reach 2 million during 2015–2025. More recent studies indicate the skills shortage will be on an even larger scale since the demand for workers trained to work alongside robots already exceeds the supply.

So what are the most wanted skills in digital manufacturing? With robotic process automation taking over routine rule-based processes, human employees are left with more complex tasks to attend to. 

Digital skills

Manufacturing workers are expected to supervise and control the operations within the digital enterprise. The digital workplace in manufacturing is now packed with consoles and controllers. Understandably, operating them requires a solid knowledge base.

Management platforms with platform-specific operating systems, communication and collaboration tools such as an enterprise social network, will demand quick thinking and fast learning employees, who are capable of mastering new technologies as the trends in the manufacturing digital workplace fluctuate.

digital-workforce

Apart from the knowledge of a particular mix of skills, being able to constantly step out of one’s comfort zone, learn and even unlearn, are the skills that humans need to master in order to meet the current digital workforce challenges.

Soft skills

The ability to quickly learn new digital tools is now an integral part of a manufacturing job description. In addition to adapting to a robotic workforce, the modern manufacturing enterprise demands unique, human-specific traits, often referred to as “soft-skills”:

  • Critical thinking: quickly processing and assessing large amounts of data and making data-driven decisions that will impact the manufacturing workflow. 
  • Creativity: the ability to think out-of-the-box and offer new solutions to existing problems.
  • Communication skills: increased levels of business agility are demanding a tighter interconnection between all siloes of an enterprise. Hence, communication skills, a.k.a “people skills” are vital to a successful cooperation. 

A digital transformation requires a workforce transformation, but while most executives are well aware of the digital workforce benefits, such as flexibility, accuracy, time-to-value, cost reduction and quality compliance, the advantages of a workforce transformation are still less obvious. So why should enterprises invest in coaching their employees to work in a digital environment

Workforce transformation benefits

Ensuring that human employees are well-suited to work alongside a robotic workforce is one of the key steps for a successful digital transformation. According to recent studies, the rates of adopting robotic process automation on an enterprise lever are growing across all industries. As for digital transformation, which is now a keynote of staying competitive, there is no going back.

So how do manufacturing companies benefit from a reduced, re-skilled and smarter workforce?

Reduced expenses: as Deloitte reports, it generally takes about 11 months for an enterprise-scale RPA system to pay back. Companies that adopted the digital workforce are dramatically reducing expenses, increasing revenue and investing in new technologies, facilities, assets and business expansion.

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Increased business agility: a creative and highly adaptable fast-learner with critical thinking and advanced communication skills – doesn’t that sound like a perfect match to modern business agility requirements? Such workers inherently understand the interconnection between all manufacturing processes, which helps them work more efficiently and create more business value.

Increased employee engagement: higher employee involvement and knowing they truly make an impact, makes for higher levels of employee engagement. If approached correctly, a digital workforce transformation leads to higher job satisfaction levels. Simply put, human employees can not only become more productive, but also, more happy due to a digital workforce. 

Read also: Why Should Your Organization Consider Digital Transformation: 5 Reasons to Go Digital

 

How to prepare your employees to work alongside a digital workforce

Managing change will ensure that the transition to a digital enterprise will undergo without major disruptive effects. Here are the steps the executive team may take to facilitate their workforce transformation:

1. Evaluate automation impact on jobs within your enterprise

Have a clear picture of how a digital workforce will affect jobs within your organization: which jobs will become completely obsolete, which will require new skills and retraining, and which ones will be created by automation? Apart from analysing digital workplace trends in manufacturing, the best practices also include studying demographic, environmental and organizational trends and their possible impact.

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2. Share your vision with your organization leaders

Technology taking over jobs and the impact of digital on a workforce may often be perceived in a negative light and raise rightful concerns. Share your vision with leaders on the executive team, get on the same page as you map out your workforce needs and work on methods of bridging the skills gap.

3. Develop an actionable workforce transformation strategy

For most enterprises undergoing a workforce transformation, downsizing is not their primary goal. Experienced workers with their in-depth knowledge of the organization and hands-on experience are too valuable to dispose of, so make sure the HR department can offer effective practices to retain such employees. Furthermore, your workforce transformation strategy should include relevant training to help human workers master new skills.

For example, AR/VR technologies applied in manufacturing may similarly be used for employee training. Make sure the training is accessible to everyone and think of ways to encourage people to learn. Partner with educational organizations to tap into talent pools for when you need to hire for new job roles (such as machine learning jobs) created by automation.

4. Take steps to implement the strategy

Obviously, developing a digital workforce will require support on all company levels. Make sure you accompany every step you take with messages that clearly communicate the goals and objectives to employees within all facets of your organization, and alleviate their concerns related to the impact of automation on workforce.


Digital transformation in manufacturing will require humans to master an unprecedented combination of technological and soft skills, and be capable of continuously adapting to changing job roles. One thing is sure: the successful integration of a human/digital workforce is hardly possible without the support and guidance of the organization’s leaders.

Start with carefully evaluating the existing digital workforce challenges and help your enterprise embrace change. Contact us to start your digital transformation journey today.

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