The Future of Work on the Factory Floor

New research shows that digitalization will drive more jobs in manufacturing.

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Finding skilled workers for plant floor operations is the biggest trouble spot for most manufacturers—including CPGs. The good news is, digital tools could help solve the talent acquisition crisis and even create new roles.

That information comes from new research commissioned by Schneider Electric and carried out by global research firm Omdia. In 2023, Omdia polled 407 industrial companies ranging from small and medium enterprises to large companies across western Europe, the US, China, India, and Southeast Asia, in four key industry segments: water/wastewater; metals, mining, and minerals; energy and chemicals; and consumer packaged goods (CPG).

The majority of the survey respondents (76%) identify that an aging workforce coupled with the inability to acquire new talent is a big challenge. And about the same number (70%), believe that digitalizing will help tackle the talent shortage.

That’s because the industrial environment is undergoing rapid change as technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), digital twins, augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), and applications that connect the workforce, are becoming integrated into the plant floor process. To that end, the research found that a new emphasis on environmental and sustainability goals will evolve the existing roles of operations personnel in quality control, engineering, maintenance, and plant management.

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According to the report, digitalization augments operational job roles by reducing the number of repetitive tasks and helping employees to make more informed decisions. It also opens up new opportunities in training and development and helps ensure safety and compliance. In the quality job function, for example, digital technologies are essential to automate and digitalize tasks—such as document control, data entry, and reporting—that are typically performed manually. Real-time data insights are also important to identify and prevent problems earlier, leading to improved quality.

Of course, acceptance of digital technologies is still an obstacle, as existing workers may see it as a threat, the report stated, noting that 43% of respondents rank this as a top-three challenge. Resistance may derive from factors such as fear for job security, unclear expectations on performance, and lack of understanding or ability to see the bigger picture. Other challenges include the technology itself, the limitations of legacy equipment, culture, and budget. Interestingly, cybersecurity is a concern, but is low on the list (see chart below). 

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The report offers suggestions of ways to address these challenges. First, digital transformation needs to align with the organization’s strategic goals and objectives. Executive sponsorship ensures that the transformation efforts are aligned with the overall strategic direction of the company.

Second, worker training is critical to support digitalization because it empowers employees to embrace digital change. It ensures that the worker can adapt to their evolving role and contribute effectively to the organization’s digital initiatives. It also boosts employee engagement.

And third, work with a digital transformation partner. A successful digital transformation is not just about the adoption and integration of new technologies but of an entirely new and innovative organizational approach. It is, therefore, critically important to choose the right partner ecosystem to support digitalization projects. Partners bring unique value in terms of technical and industry-specific knowledge. Importantly, they also provide local knowledge and intimacy with respect to culture and technical abilities.

"Digitalization doesn't just benefit productivity and overall efficiency. It's vital for solving some of the people-centric challenges facing industrial businesses," said Ali Haj Fraj, senior vice president, Digital Factory, Industrial Automation at Schneider Electric, in a statement. "There's a real opportunity for industrial enterprises to optimize and enhance OT roles. By reducing the time spent on administrative tasks and enabling people to better fulfil their potential, we can solve many of the key challenges facing these businesses and help build a more sustainable future."

Click here to read the full report.