Business of Engineering

How to maximize people power with digital capabilities

Why human capital is key to prospering in the new manufacturing normal

By Johannes Papst November 22, 2020
Courtesy: SAP

As much as the ideal of the “intelligent enterprise” speaks to a company’s prowess with Industry 4.0 technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and robotic process automation (RPA), the intelligence with which industrial manufacturing organizations manage another asset, their workforce, will be just as important to their success in the next normal.

Noting an “inextricable link between human health and organizational success,” the World Economic Forum states “employees are increasingly seen by boards of directors as vital stakeholders, critical to business recovery.” Industrial manufacturing executives apparently concur with the WEF assessment, as a recent McKinsey survey of manufacturing and supply-chain professionals found that 90% plan to invest in talent for digitalization.

With recovery hinging as much on an industrial manufacturer’s ability to maximize human capital as on its use of connected, data-driven digital technologies, here’s a look at a handful of ways they can leverage those technologies to keep their people safe, healthy, engaged and productive — and their organizations sustainably profitable.

Preserving worker health and business continuity

The COVID-19 pandemic’s persistence means industrial manufacturers must continue to be diligent about monitoring and preserving the health of their employees. They need to be able to conduct inhouse health screenings, monitor compliance with social/physical distancing policies and track employee interactions in the workplace. A workforce symptom check system (with enterprise-grade data privacy around it) can be valuable in that regard, enabling manufacturers to securely collect information from employees about health and contact. To complement that system, industrial manufacturers are using onsite contact tracing tools that track worker interactions inside a facility.

Managing the employee experience

Our work with a broad range of industrial manufacturers during the COVID-19 crisis strongly suggests the best-performing companies are widening the performance gap by delivering great experiences to their employees as well as their customers. Now more than ever, employees want to feel safe and valued in the workplace. When a manufacturing organization has the tools to measure and draw insight from employee experience data, they then can take steps to shape the employee experience, closing any gaps they identify.

In a crisis like COVID-19, the best-performing organizations are going the extra mile to understand how their employees are faring, not just in their jobs but more broadly, in trying to balance work with personal concerns. These organizations are using experience management (XM) tools — quick in-the-moment digital surveys, etc. — to create and maintain a communication and feedback loop with employees to understand their morale, concerns and logistical needs. By applying advanced analytics to employee experience data, company leadership can stay attuned to employees’ mindset and engagement level and gain valuable insight into the policy and process adjustments needed to improve the employee experience.

Given how fast circumstances and mindset can change, XM tools enable a manufacturer to take the pulse of its workforce on a much more regular basis, giving leadership and managers instant access to employee feedback on safety protocols, working conditions, and newly implemented processes in the factory. With real-time insight into employee sentiment, evolving pain points and other key data, they can take quick and meaningful action to ensure they’re providing what their people need to be productive on the job.

When workers know their employer is not only listening to but also acting upon their feedback, they’re more likely to be engaged and productive in their jobs.

Recruiting, hiring and training

“Even in the age of robotics, industrial manufacturers cannot run without skilled workers,” states a newly released study from Oxford Economics. In that study, which is based on survey responses from 3,000 senior executives, including 300 from the industrial manufacturing sector, 22% of industrial manufacturers cited the lack of skilled workers as a top barrier to achieving their strategic change initiatives. To overcome that barrier, industrial manufacturers and their HR departments must become more digitally focused in their efforts to find, evaluate and onboard talent. Here’s another area where XM tools can show their value by helping companies tailor their recruitment programs and the job applicant experience to the type of talent they seek to hire.

Keeping the talent pipeline flowing is one pressing HR concern. Workforce agility is another. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted just how important it is for manufacturers to have total visibility into their workforce, with the ability to quickly scale a contingent workforce up and down, and to shift employees to where they can deliver the most value to the organization and its customers. Digital workforce management capabilities can help them do so, enabling rapid onboarding and training on production workflows and processes.

Factory processes and workflows

The automaker Audi, which for years has relied on robots at its production plants, recently introduced RPA in its offices to carry out monotonous tasks for employees at PC workstations. “With the introduction of RPA, we are pushing forward the digitalization of our business,” said Dr. Bernd Martens, a member of Audi’s Board of Management for Procurement and information technology (IT). “We are using bots to make our processes more efficient and faster, and at the same time are giving our employees more time for more interesting work — a win-win situation for everyone.”

From bots in the office to robots inside the plant, manufacturers are accelerating adoption of automation technologies. About half the manufacturing executives that McKinsey surveyed indicated their organization’s adoption of automation has accelerated moderately, and another 20% reported significantly increasing automation.

Automation not only frees people for higher value work, it means production can continue with a lesser reliance on human beings. By connecting automated equipment on the factory floor to machine learning- and AI-powered asset monitoring and management tools, processes, equipment and product output can be monitored remotely to ensure production continues with minimal human intervention. As more manufacturers move to reshore production to North America, automation also helps compensate for the higher labor costs of doing so.

When this level of end-to-end connectivity and visibility extends from the plant floor, throughout the manufacturing organization and its workforce, across the supply network and right down to the end customer, an industrial manufacturer gains the ability to connect workforce (re)deployment directly to demand signals, production priorities and financial realities. That’s when the link between human capital and business success becomes truly meaningful.


Johannes Papst
Author Bio: Johannes Papst is a solution manager for SAP. His focus is aligning SAP solutions with today´s business needs especially in the industrial machinery and components industry. He has more than 20 years of experience in the discrete manufacturing world. His main area is manufacturing processes and working will small and medium businesses.