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Human Innovation and Advanced Automation: The Balancing Act of Modern Manufacturing

Kylene Zenk
By Kylene Zenk Director, Manufacturing Practice Group, Kronos Inc.

The automation debate is a captivating one, but for some it conjures up images of a world where their roles become obsolete, superseded by the ruthless efficiency and unwavering energy of machines. Technology has undoubtedly been—and will continue to be—a powerful, revolutionizing force in the manufacturing sector. Yet despite these fears, a future where people become obsolete is a very long way from reality. Manufacturing will always require the aptitude for innovation that only the human brain can provide.

In short, a collaborative relationship between humans and technology is the future for manufacturing—and once this has become clear to every employee, the possibilities for growth are vast.

A Driving Force

From the assembly line, which brought much greater efficiency to the manufacturing process, to more modern inventions, such as integrated electrical circuits, the increasing pace of automation in the modern age has been instrumental in speeding up production processes and helping workers do their jobs more effectively.

Workforce management and planning software have also been extremely effective in building the manufacturing floor of the future. Today’s automated solutions, powered by artificial intelligence (AI), are relieving managers of the mundane, time-consuming administrative tasks that were such a burden in the past. For example, common processes such as building employee schedules, approving timecards and time-off requests, and managing compliance regulations can now be done with relative ease, giving leaders the freedom to fully engage with their teams and focus on how they can add further value to the business.

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Many responsibilities will always require human input, especially when it comes to optimizing new technology.

Alongside automation, the rise of mobile technology has brought with it the proliferation of devices such as tablets and smartphones being used on plant floors, construction sites, and shipyards. By viewing real-time data via mobile devices, teams can access information—such as where there may be gaps in coverage—when and where they need it, enabling managers and employees to make faster, more informed decisions.

As advanced technologies continue to modernize the manufacturing sector, there is huge potential for this upward trend in workforce collaboration and productivity to continue.

People Spark Innovation

As is so often the case with major changes to the way people work, a rapid increase in applied technology typically meets with skepticism. As automation becomes more prominent, some workers feel that their roles will gradually diminish in importance.

And while it’s true that emerging technologies have huge potential, the reality is that regardless of how heavily automated the sector becomes, 71 percent of the value created by the operation comes from human actions, according to “The State of Human Factory Analytics,” a 2018 study by A.T. Kearney and Drishti. In layman’s terms, that means manufacturing’s biggest source of innovation and intelligence will always be people.

AI and machine learning may have the ability to improve autonomously, but they simply can’t be used to their full capability without human intervention to make sure the technology runs smoothly. Similarly, beyond the necessity of having someone to monitor, assess, and maintain equipment, manufacturers require people on the shop floor to provide the vision that technology will then help to accomplish.

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Workforce management and planning software have been extremely effective in helping build the manufacturing floor of the future.

At the end of the day, many responsibilities will always require human input, especially when it comes to optimizing new technology and coming up with unique ways of accomplishing tasks.

Embrace Automation

Workers and emerging technologies will coexist peacefully if we’re ready and willing to make the most of the opportunities they present. In fact, employees around the world are ready to embrace AI: 82 percent of employees believe AI can improve their job in some manner, according to a global survey of nearly 3,000 employees across eight countries by The Workforce Institute at Kronos Inc.

“While emerging technologies always generate uncertainty, this survey shows employees worldwide share a cautious optimism that artificial intelligence is a promising tool that could pave the way for a game-changing employee experience, so long as it is used to add fairness and eliminate low-value workplace processes and tasks, allowing employees to focus on the parts of their roles that really matter,” said Joyce Maroney, executive director, The Workforce Institute at Kronos.

Further, economic reports suggest that a sizable percentage of the future workforce across all industries will be doing jobs that don’t exist today. In manufacturing, these emerging roles will be particularly critical since the sector already faces an ongoing skills shortage. The good news is that rapidly advancing technology is creating growing opportunities for workers to learn new, advanced skills and for fresh talent to enter the industry.

With all of this in mind, management must work side by side with people to apply technology that can move the manufacturing sector forward. Organizations that are ready to empower the manufacturing workforce with automation will be ready for the next big workplace transformation.

People Innovate, Technology Facilitates

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Rapidly advancing technology is creating growing opportunities for workers to learn new, more advanced skills.

Machines and software are shaking up the old ways of doing things, but this evolution brings many opportunities for employees to grow their skillsets, free themselves of administrative headaches, and contribute more readily to the wider goals of the workplace.

With the right approach to the management of people and the adoption of new technologies, workers in the manufacturing sector have everything to gain. If technology is the guardrail that helps keep us on the straight and narrow, then human-driven innovation is the vehicle, guiding our collective journey and propelling the industry forward.

Kronos Inc. is a multi-national workforce management software and services company headquartered in Lowell, Mass.

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