3 Simple Ways to Empower an Industry 4.0 Workforce

March 11, 2024
Technology may be the defining characteristic of Industry 4.0, but skilled workers represent a massive opportunity. Manufacturers who invest in and empower their frontline workforce have the most to gain from automation.

Digital transformation on the factory floor is incredibly complex, especially for the people who actually have to run it. When we introduce new technologies, we often see a gap between what workers know how to do—“the way it’s always been”—and what’s now possible.

Too often the conversation revolves around these massive overhauls: the integration of technologies like the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), artificial intelligence, augmented reality, robotics and more.

In reality, we need to break this large undertaking down into small, manageable and measurable steps. Industry 4.0 should be about bringing the workforce along on the journey, empowering them with skills and knowledge, and then giving them the opportunity to rise to the occasion.

Following are three ways to do this with your workforce transition:

Pick the low-hanging fruit

It’s not unusual to be able to begin an Industry 4.0 journey without installing a single new machine. Your existing equipment might have existing functionality that you’re just not using. 

Implementing this functionality requires minimal investment and provides a high return as well as an easy way for operators and maintenance staff to start feeling comfortable adapting to change.

For instance, we recently set up Siemens ProDiag in a factory with older equipment while upgrading parts of their human machine interface (HMI). Their Siemens HMI software already had the capability needed, they just didn’t have the license enabled. By taking this simple step, maintenance technicians could then see what was causing a machine to stop and view helpful diagnostic messages without having to put in a lot of extra effort.

A big part of Industry 4.0 is gaining visibility into machine metrics. By adding this self-documenting functionality, we’re getting technicians used to digitally interacting with machinery on equipment they already understand.

Give the technicians ownership

When you work on the same equipment for so long, you get to know it better than anyone. The technicians understand the idiosyncrasies and personalities of the equipment. So before you make any changes—big or small—get them involved. Talk to the people closest to the processes, understand their frustrations and figure out what works best for their workflows.

You want them to think: “I had this great idea and now the machine and I are working together better than ever before.” What you don’t want is them thinking is: “My boss or some outsider says I have to do it just because they say so, and they don’t care at all about me.”

Empower workers to add more value

With a greater understanding of how your plant’s machinery works, how to find information when they need it and how to solve their own problems, workers can add even more value. They’ll apply themselves and find ways to improve both their own efficiency and their capabilities while maximizing overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). 

Remember, at its core, Industry 4.0 is defined by better and faster access to data. That means better access to knowledge. Software like that from Tulip allows workers and operations teams to create purpose-built applications that collect, control and analyze relevant data at its point of use with short turnaround times.  

Technology doesn’t work well when it’s not based on the realities of the people who are needed to keep business running. It should be additive to their jobs. System integrators and plant managers should understand the role of the workforce in the modern factory and get workforce buy-in from the beginning. That’s how you unlock the true value of new technologies.

G Brooks-Zak, P.E., is co-founder of Outlier Automation, an integrator member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Outlier Automation, visit its profile on the CSIA Industrial Automation Exchange

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