Reimagining The Manufacturing Workforce

With localization, don't forget your approach to labor.
Organizations are rethinking strategies to bring production closer to the sites of consumption. But when it comes to localization, don’t forget your approach to labor. Three key points to think through.

The manufacturing landscape is rapidly evolving. Facing economic headwinds, geopolitical disruption, natural disasters and other macro trends, organizations are rethinking supply chain management manufacturing strategies to bring production closer to the sites of consumption. This localization may take the shape of a greenfield approach, where factories are newly constructed with smart manufacturing tools and technologies, or a brownfield approach, where existing sites are updated to optimize operations.

Yet, the geographic location of a site is only one component in seizing agility, flexibility and speed throughout operations. Just as important is the workforce, and when it comes to localization, reimagining labor and talent can open the door to greater resilience and productivity.

Resilient manufacturing sites and supply chains operate as connected networks that are enabled by a multi-faceted workforce of internal and external contributors. To nurture resilience and optimize operations, organizations should consider abandoning legacy, siloed work models. Instead, as localization projects move forward, manufacturers have an opportunity to engineer advantage and take a fresh, more nuanced view of their workforces. Rather than just a collection of human employees, a manufacturing workforce today is better understood as an integrated, interconnected ecosystem of diverse workers and technology in a workplace that spans digital, physical and virtual environments.

To understand why, consider the who, where and how of a reimagined workforce ecosystem.

The Who – A constellation of talent and capabilities

Work today is no longer performed just by employees. Increasingly, humans work with and beside intelligent machines, using automation as a component of workflows. What is more, external contributors, from contingent workers to supply chain partners, are essential components of an agile workforce. Indeed, 86 percent of business leaders report that organizational performance hinges in part on effective management and orchestration of external contributors, according to a survey from MIT Sloan Management Review.

As such, the manufacturing workforce can be conceived of as an ecosystem. By taking this view, organizations are positioned to rapidly respond to variable demand in supply chains, as well as coordinate digital and external contributors to optimize cost and talent needs. For example, a fast-moving consumer goods company is implementing a new manufacturing technology system to create a “plant of the future.” By integrating new technology into processes, employees will be equipped with detailed data, tracking and other information, shifting their roles from manual work such as weighing inputs and monitoring temperatures to using data collected by smart scales and sensors to make real-time decisions.

While these types of shifts and digitization can lead to improved KPIs such as time to market, quality control, more accurate demand planning and more, organizations need to take an integrated approach to orchestrate workforce ecosystems for success. This means shifting leadership approaches to lead diverse teams of technology, employees and external contributors. It also means bringing down barriers to collaboration between functional areas, as well as rethinking management and talent practices to attract the best human capital.

The Where – A distributed network of talent

In the past, a local talent pool was indispensable for supply chain and manufacturing operations, but today, the availability of data, artificial intelligence and virtual collaboration permits a geographically dispersed workforce collaborating across a variety of channels. Organizations that connect their employees to their supply chain network through a digital backbone powered by data enables the workforce to operate as a connected network. Work can be digitally distributed to the components of the workforce best able to accomplish the value-adding capabilities.

One factor is how skills and knowledge are transported and transferred between elements of the workforce. Workers at a greenfield site in one country may require the expertise held by workers in another. A digital backbone that connects the workforce ecosystem erases the constraints of geography, allowing workers to use augmented reality, virtual reality, digital twins and other technologies to share knowledge and complete tasks irrespective of their actual location.

By taking a distributed talent approach to workforce optimization, organizations can tap into a much broader talent pool. In this, businesses can attract new employees and external contributors without requiring them to relocate to a manufacturing site, which can help the company compete for and retain the best talent. A broader talent pool also gives the organization greater capacity to intentionally promote diversity, equity and inclusion throughout the ecosystem.

The How – Integration for workers and workplaces

The technology that connects a distributed workforce impacts not just where the ecosystem works but also how. The fast-evolving capabilities in AI, machine learning and robotics are driving opportunities to re-architect work entirely. In some ways, technology can supplement workers’ experience and expertise. This leads to a workforce that is empowered to focus on value-driving work not just as an individual contributor but as part of a multifaceted group all working toward mission outcomes.

Consider the initiative by the U.S. Marine Corps to create a digital repository of engineering data that could enable Marines anywhere in the world to 3D-print parts and tools in the field. This supports a more agile supply chain, and the long-term vision is a program-of-record repository that simultaneously supports additive manufacturing for even more efficient operations; establishes a secure “one-stop-shop for approval process, version control, approved part drawings and technical data packages,” and better aligns people, processes, technology and data around an organization-wide advanced manufacturing solution.

While emerging technologies are indispensable assets in the manufacturing and supply chain environment, organizations cannot lose sight of the human element. By keeping the human worker at the center of workforce decisions, the organization can focus on collaboration and integration across the ecosystem while also hiring and retaining a skilled human workforce. Workers are attracted to companies and facilities with advanced operations, as there are opportunities for more meaningful and impactful work, as well as education and upskilling.

Leading organizations today take a creative view on how to assemble the most capable and nimble workforce ecosystem. By reimagining the who, where and how of the workforce, organizations can build toward the flexibility, agility and speed that is essential for localization projects today and whatever challenges and opportunities may emerge in the future.

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