• Digital technology has exacerbated the manufacturing skills gap, but it can be a useful tool in closing it, too.
  • Technology can help workers on the shop floor perform increasingly complex tasks.
  • Technology can also make worker training faster and more effective.

Manufacturing is an industry of skills. Every factory runs on the back of hundreds of specialized skill sets, any one of which may take years to master.

So, it should be no surprise, then, that manufacturing’s enduring labor crisis is the result of a skills gap – a growing lack of alignment between the skills in the workforce and the demands of modern manufacturing.

The skills gap is a product of many converging forces, but the industry’s increasing reliance on digital technologies is perhaps the main culprit. Yet for all the talk about how digital technologies have exacerbated the skills gap, relatively little has been said about the solutions they offer.

If digital technologies helped create the skills gap, they also hold the key to closing it.

Here are four ways digital technologies can help manufacturers empower their greatest asset: the workforce.

The number of unfilled manufacturing jobs since January, 2009, in hundreds of thousands.
Image: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

The nature of manufacturing work has changed. Digital tools can help workers keep up.

Automation has taken over most simple, repetitive tasks in manufacturing. As a result, humans are left to perform the most complicated operations. Tools on the shop floor, however, haven’t kept up.

This means humans are performing complex tasks without the benefit of technology or a tech stack – a unique state of affairs in a world of technology-driven workplaces.

New digital technologies promise precisely this kind of augmentative support. For example:

  • Digital workflows guide workers through complex tasks, preventing the most common types of human errors.
  • Real-time analytics give workers the information they need to spend more time on creative problem solving.
  • Smarter, better sensors and interfaces blur the line between worker and system, improving everything from efficiency to health and safety.
  • No-code development tools let anyone design shop floor-ready applications without training in software development.

And these are just a few of the ways digital technologies are already augmenting workers.

The nature of work is changing, but human nature isn’t. Augmentative digital technologies bridge the gap.

Targeted training

Successful education isn’t as simple as giving someone the manual and a desired outcome. There are multiple factors that unite successful training programs, from clear educational priorities to sound curriculum design.

This graph shows front line operator’s performance improvement following a targeted training program. Here, there’s a 45% difference in average step time before and after the training.

Digital technologies can enhance training on multiple fronts.

First, the data collected from connected processes can refine training programs. Manufacturers running digital processes automatically collect data at the step, cycle and process level for every operator and part. This data is critical for designing effective training programs.

Further, experienced workers may have discovered a best practice that allows them to work faster than their peers. Data can highlight these situations and enable engineers to document and share valuable tacit knowledge.

Second, digital training tools improve training speed and retention. They can be designed to target the most difficult parts of tasks, and optimized for learners who need visual and experiential support. In my experience, manufacturers using digital training tools can reduce training time by as much as 75%.

The result is faster onboarding for new employees, and expedited reskilling as production focuses change.

Digital knowledge share

In order for knowledge to be useful at an industry level, there needs to be a mechanism for sharing it. The skills gap is intensifying in part because manufacturers are forced to reinvent the wheel when it comes to training and reskilling.

The solution is digital knowledge share, or an infrastructure for sharing training modules, courses, applications and other information between manufacturers to guarantee everyone who wants to learn has the resources to do so.

This is a project that’s will require collaboration between government, industry and educational institutions. I’m excited to be working with the World Economic Forum on several initiatives to make this a reality, from a taskforce on the future of work in advanced manufacturing, which is creating learning journeys for manufacturers, to the New England Advanced Manufacturing Hub to facilitate needed broad-based sharing.

The reality of manufacturing work is that there’s no one-size-fits-all training to teach the skills necessary for a rapidly changing workplace. Nor are there ways to predict with certainty which skills will be most important in the coming years. Openly available, digitally distributed forums, marketplaces and curricula are ways for manufacturers to keep themselves sharp on an ongoing basis.

With the half-life of skills estimated at five years, lifelong learning is now required of all workers.

Digital knowledge share is a way to make lifelong learning more effective.

Human-first digital culture

Digital technologies can help close the skills gap, but the fact is, technologies never solve problems in a vacuum. Technologies are always implemented within a shop-floor culture, and this is especially true when the “problem” is human skills.

The history of technology is littered with examples of workers sabotaging projects because they felt threatened by them. Fortunately, this outcome is avoidable. Manufacturers can ensure the success of their digital projects by adopting a human-first digital culture.

A human-first digital culture looks at workers as an asset, not as a problem. Creating this culture requires involving workers in discussions of technology, early and often. It necessitates accounting for how technologies will be used, who will use them and how it will affect their day-to-day.

The evidence suggests digital innovation projects involving workers are more likely to succeed in the long term.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

The World Economic Forum was the first to draw the world’s attention to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the current period of unprecedented change driven by rapid technological advances. Policies, norms and regulations have not been able to keep up with the pace of innovation, creating a growing need to fill this gap.

The Forum established the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network in 2017 to ensure that new and emerging technologies will help—not harm—humanity in the future. Headquartered in San Francisco, the network launched centres in China, India and Japan in 2018 and is rapidly establishing locally-run Affiliate Centres in many countries around the world.

The global network is working closely with partners from government, business, academia and civil society to co-design and pilot agile frameworks for governing new and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles, blockchain, data policy, digital trade, drones, internet of things (IoT), precision medicine and environmental innovations.

Learn more about the groundbreaking work that the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network is doing to prepare us for the future.

Want to help us shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Contact us to find out how you can become a member or partner.

The outlook

If manufacturing is going to remain competitive, we must take every advantage of digital technologies. And we need to apply these technologies in innovative ways to support workers as they perform increasingly complex work.

So, let me close by asking a question. If someone told the sales department at your company to do their work without a CRM, what would you say? What about the equivalent tech stacks for HR, marketing, finance, business intelligence? You’d probably call them insane.

Why accept this state of affairs on the shop floor?

Now, with so many opportunities to assist and augment workers with digital technology, we don’t have to.