How Manufacturing Technology Can Benefit Workers

Among the most enduring narratives of the post-industrial age are the stories about the many ways technology-enabled automation has enriched corporations at the expense of their workers, resulting in stagnant wages, lost jobs and other unfortunate outcomes. ChatGPT is the latest looming villain.

But there’s also a flip side to the story that rarely gets discussed—the benefits that have accrued to workers due to technology.

Consider this real-life example:

A single mom with two small children is a shift supervisor at a manufacturing plant. Her shift starts early, before the school-day begins. Without pre-dawn day-care support, she leaves her children at home in bed while she goes into work to get her shift started. She then sneaks home to get her children dressed, fed and off to school and returns to work to finish her shift. The routine makes her feel like a terrible mom … and a terrible employee as well. But she feels she has no alternative. It’s heartbreaking.

Now consider several ways technology, or even some creative thinking, might provide her with options, at least in the near term:

– She could conduct the morning meeting that kicks off each shift from her kitchen — using a remote meeting app such as Zoom, perhaps in combination with an augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) program if a process needs to be evaluated or reviewed. She could then join her team in person after the kids leave for school.

– Another option would be to create a facility-wide shift “marketplace,” an online portal where supervisors could “sell” or trade parts of their shifts to get coverage from peers who also have schedule problems or want to earn some extra money.

– Or, the company could use technology to organize a gig squad of retired plant supervisors who can cover the morning kickoff, or redesign shift schedules using generative AI to match shift times to individual obligations and preferences.

That’s the short term. In the long term, the factory of the future likely will be completely automated, end-to-end, with a master control panel—its digital twin—at a remote location, and accessible from other remote locations.

In the case of manufacturing, a digital twin basically is a really smart digital replica of what actually happens in a plant based on massive amounts of data collected by sensors throughout the plant.

When combined with upskilling employees to do higher-value work, digital twins will allow for many, if not most factory functions to be monitored and controlled remotely—even from someone’s living room or kitchen table. This will enable many deskless workers to enjoy the flexibility of working from home that currently is limited to the 20% to 30% of workers who spend most of their days in front of computer screens.

This is not fantasy. The World Economic Forum has identified 132 manufacturing facilities in more than 30 countries that already are using “Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies to transform factories, value chains and business models.” Referred to as the “Global Lighthouse Network,” the trailblazing plants include many that are owned and operated by the biggest names in manufacturing, including Bayer, BMW, Bosch, Coca-Cola Company, Danone, Ericsson, Foxconn, GSK, LG Electronics, Mondelez, Procter & Gamble, Siemens, and Unilever.

How has this affected workers in the 132 “Lighthouse” plants? While I can’t vouch for all, what Unilever reports is that the new ways of doing things required them to invest in digital training to upskill their entire workforce in the super high-tech plants. Such upskilling usually means higher wages and reduced health and safety risks, a win for all involved.

Of course, the road to full end-to-end automation is a long, investment-heavy one. It won’t happen overnight. And the reality is: The decision to move forward and the speed at which it’s done will be based in most cases largely on economic factors—energy savings, reduction in environmental impact, quality, productivity and safety improvements, among others—rather than an overwhelming desire to make work better for frontline “deskless” workers.

Whatever the motive, they will benefit, however.

They can also benefit from technology in other ways—even from the collection and analysis of data, something that is now routine in many, if not most companies.

For example, consider what happened during the pandemic at Canada’s McCain Foods, the world’s largest supplier of frozen French fries.

While most companies were reflexively pulling back and shutting down in response to the escalating global lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders, McCain executives were closely monitoring point-of-sale data at one of their most important global customers: McDonald’s. They discovered that sales were surprisingly strong—probably because McDonald’s wasn’t having to reinvent itself, as many other firms were, to accommodate high-volume drive-thru traffic. So, while other companies were halting production, canceling orders from suppliers, and laying off workers, McCain kept their growers growing and their workers working. That’s what the data told them to do.

The win also encouraged the company to dive deeper into analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation to improve operations.

I contacted Caroline Morissette, McCain’s Vice President, Digital & Data, to find out how the Covid-era lessons are affecting the company’s operations moving forward. “Like for many companies,” she said, “the urgency to respond quickly to our customers’ needs was heightened during Covid and, then, the supply-chain crises that followed. We saw an opportunity to use data in new ways, unlocking the creativity of our teams to bring together insights about the business with data analytics. The ‘gear’ we found … around digital and data is new and exciting—and one that we want to continue at pace.”

As a footnote, but an important one, she told me that McCain has both added workers and given existing employees greater opportunity to move up as a result of the higher volumes the company can now run as a result of its deep dive into digital. In other words, at every level the company and its employees have benefitted.

As my colleague Vanessa Lyon has told me, employers need to think deeply about the ways in which technology affects their employees. Part of that calculation should be a simple question: Does it—or can it—make work better for them?

Can it make things better for a single mom by enabling her to start her shift from home before her children go off to school? Will it incentivize the company to upskill workers for higher-value and higher-paying roles? And, in those cases where automation eliminates jobs—think the fully-automated plants of the future—will the company be responsible enough to reskill unneeded workers for available jobs elsewhere to the benefit of all? I hope so, because that would be the “double word score” of both a technology advantage and a talent advantage.


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