How Manufacturers Can Tackle The Labor Problem In Their Race To Industry 4.0

Elephant standing in conference room in office

There’s a lot of attention being paid to the role that technological innovation will play in transforming manufacturing. Still, even as they are being inundated with ways to achieve the Industry 4.0 vision, most manufacturers are struggling with realities that limit their ability to achieve the most basic measures of manufacturing success.

More than a vision (and a lot of promises), manufacturers need ways to overcome those challenges even as they tackle the opportunity for revolutionary change.

Problem #1: The Workforce Dilemma

There’s a lot of noise about the role manufacturing has in providing “good” jobs, but the reality is that manufacturers can’t fill the jobs they have today. We hear it over and over again from our customers and prospects – “fix my labor problem, please.” Manufacturing’s labor gap isn’t surprising when you look at the factors behind the challenge of building a reliable, productive workforce:

  • The gray tsunami: In 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that more than half of employees in manufacturing were over the age of 45, and more than half of those were over 55. That’s a lot of people headed quickly toward retirement. The next generation of workers doesn’t want those jobs, leaving manufacturers unable to staff operations reliably.
  • The drug crisis: When it comes to a stable labor pool, the opioid crisis is hitting manufacturing hardest. At fellow Forbes contributor Lora Cecere’s Supply Chain Summit this fall, one panelist posited that up to 25% of the decline in labor force participation by the prime demographic (men ages 25-54) for these jobs is a direct result of opioid use.
  • The skills gap: In a recent post on, BCG analyst Justin Rose highlighted the urgent need to shift away from a workforce that has a single set of specific technical skills to cultivating one with a more broad-based set of adaptive skills that draw on abilities such as active listening and learning, critical thinking, decision making, and communication. The sticking point here is that our education and workforce training models aren’t aligned with this need.

For manufacturers, these challenges mean they don’t have what they need to run operations efficiently:

  • A reliable workforce.
  • The ability to scale up and down quickly.
  • Stable levels of productivity and quality.

Without these, any aggressive move toward the new model of a connected and intelligent factory will not amount to much more than putting lipstick on a pig.

Problem, Solved

What manufacturers need is a way to staff operations today, while they begin testing and proving the benefits of Industry 4.0. That’s where collaborative robots come into play, giving manufacturers the ability to:

  • Automate more. With robots able to move toward automating more tasks that require technical skills, like machine tending, manufacturers get 1) the assurance that operations can run efficiently, smoothly and reliably, and 2) the runway to offer more training focused on the adaptive skills required for the new models.
  • Scale up and down as business needs. Moving from one to two shifts or three shifts to one with people as the primary labor force is not easy – or desirable. Robots can work as much – or as little – as needed, and at a price point under $35,000, the ROI can still be achieved if the robot is only in use for a single shift.
  • Increase dependable levels of quality and productivity. For many tasks, repetition is the name of the game. People are simply not suited to doing the same thing over and over: Minds wander, fingers and hands become numb, and mistakes get made – or worse, someone gets hurt. Robots are built to perform the same task over and over with a guaranteed level of precision and reliability.

Toward A Brighter Future

Manufacturers are, and always have been, data-driven. So the promise of Industry 4.0 to streamline the collection, analysis and data-driven decision making most definitely appeals.

More than simply a workforce multiplier, collaborative robots can help manufacturers move toward achieving this benefit. Robots make it possible for manufacturers to get started on the things they most want today:

  • Metrics matter: Manufacturers measure everything – production counts, scrap rates, cycle time, machine downtime, and more. Having this information collected and analyzed to make decisions and changes in real-time is essential to more agile operations.
  • Freed machine data: The information exists, but most often it’s locked in proprietary systems that limit accessibility and applicability. Advances in software-driven robots are making the information visible on the robot, available for onboard analytics and easy-to-extract for operational-wide use.
  • Plug-and-play integration: A single visual view of all equipment on one screen allows for orchestrating flow changes from a central source to the equipment that can perform the changed action.

With these objectives handily met by robots, manufacturers have a foundation on which to build with confidence.

A Journey Begun

Running a manufacturing company – whether you are in the C-suite or working in day-to-operations – and navigating the transformative time we’re in is not for the faint of heart. Success will come to those who tackle the biggest challenges first – with a smart approach that takes care of today’s problem while enabling the path to tomorrow.

Tweet me @jim_lawton.

Originally published on Forbes.