Despite the troubles of 2020 caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, more manufacturing firms are digitally transforming their businesses through pragmatic investments in new technologies. The good news is that there are many examples of best practices from manufacturers that have already invested in digital transformation. The risk is in focusing too much on the technologies they’ve adopted—such as WiFi-based real-time monitoring, robotics, additive manufacturing, predictive analytics, and dashboards. People matter more.
The real key to manufacturing firms’ success in digital transformation is not the array of systems in place but how effectively businesses empower their employees. Manufacturers that concentrate on people first and technology second will achieve longer-lasting results than their peers.
Employee ownership is the fuel that makes a digital transformation pilot succeed. The digital transformation needs to start by providing every technician affected by the new technologies a chance to transform, learn and grow. By focusing first on change management and including every technician affected, new technologies become an integral part of the company’s existing workflows.
The digital transformation also has to make immediate sense to everyone on the shop floor. That is why successful manufacturers typically begin with a thorough explanation of technologies to their production teams. Senior management needs to ensure that everyone knows how the monitoring, analytics, and additive technologies will improve production efficiency.
One of the best digital transformation moments I witnessed was at an aerospace aftermarket parts manufacturer. In a company-wide meeting announcing the new technologies, the CEO said that no one was being let go; in fact, the company had 15 open positions. He then offered incentives to help fill the position for a senior FANUC robotics technician with experience in the plastics industry. He offered to give a $1,000 incentive to whoever recommended a hired candidate, as well as provide the candidate with a $2,500 signing bonus. The goal was to eliminate fear and assure employees of their roles moving forward.
Training is also integral to a successful transformation. One example is a medical manufacturer I visited that uses robotics to stack one million 2D parts each week. As the largest employer in a rural Pacific Northwest town, it hasn’t been able to attract all the robotics technicians needed, despite active recruiting and signing bonuses. So, the company offered free evening robotics training to all employees—flying in trainers, investing in the latest courseware, and transforming a large conference room into a learning center.
A dozen workers have taken advantage of the offer, and three technicians are now certified to keep FANUC robots running. Moreover, the company’s FANUC robotics and plastics extrusion expertise have led to customer wins across the United States, Europe and Asia. The investments in training enabled the retention of valuable employees and keeping a second production shift operating to meet customer delivery dates for the company’s growing business.
Digital transformation done right is about self-transformation and the willingness to help production technicians reinvent themselves and add valuable skills. With skilled employees in demand, providing an opportunity for them to grow professionally is a great retention—and recruiting—strategy. New technologies that are owned by production teams make it from pilot to production because they’re trusted. That needs to be the true goal of digital transformation.
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