Imagine operating and managing a plant remotely – a phrase which in the past was a figment of the imagination or perhaps a facet of a sales pitch for an automation company. It’s now a stark reality thanks to the COVID pandemic.

As with any global catastrophe, the pandemic forced sudden and abrupt change, which tested the mettle and resilience of every single business in the world. Manufacturing was no exception.

The pandemic forced manufacturing companies to find innovative solutions to keep operations running, through the adoption of remote work. Tactics included reduced dependence on active shop floor personnel, worker safety measures such as automation and physical distancing, and the employment of advanced technologies such as Augmented and Virtual Reality to upskill, enrich and assist a worker’s environment. The progress companies made to meet digital requirements posed by the pandemic, all the while maintaining/improving productivity levels and dealing with supply chain disruptions, was the greatest boost to achieving Industry 4.0 that’s been seen in this century.

Operating a plant remotely became a sudden reality during the pandemic and the changes made to accommodate may just lead to irreversible changes in the way things are done. McKinsey recently announced trends which will shape the future of work post-pandemic until 2030. We have used this report to underline the role a modern MES data platform can play in shaping a future workforce structure, which is both Industry 4.0 compliant and yet enhances both the quality and productivity of the workforce. 

Remote work is here to stay

The report points out that 20-25% of the workforce in advanced economies can work from home between three to five days a week. When the pandemic hit, it became increasingly clear that only workers essential to operate machinery and provide material movement were needed on the shop floor. That too changed, with restrictions on the number of workers allowed on the shop floor due to safety and social distancing restrictions. A large percentage of management staff had to review and contribute to active management from their homes.

A challenge for remote work is the need for various stakeholders to actively collaborate, in order to ensure workflows and line set-ups could be reconfigured to deliver new products, designed either to meet pandemic derived demands or due to supply chain issues. With a MES in place, it became exponentially easier for engineering and operations personnel to collaborate: remoteley designed workflows and product configurations can be easily worked upon simultaneously by functional experts and executed all on the same MES platform. It is this ability of the MES to provide constant connectivity, remotely through mobile and personal devices to allow new products to be rolled out, in spite of the impediments posed by a pandemic-type situation.

The right MES can help boost productivity while keeping in line with this emerging trend. IoT-enabled MES data platforms allow for the creation of a digital twin of the manufacturing plant and production lines, allowing management personnel to test changes, updates, and workflows without touching the actual production lines, or even setting foot on the actual shop floor.

Tools like AR and VR, which seemed futuristic just a few years ago, can easily be unleashed with the right MES and made a reality. Such tools allow for reduced workforces on the shop floor to still have a ‘virtual support infrastructure’ to guide, inform and enable activities like training, maintenance and troubleshooting.

MES is ‘the’ application which makes remote working a reality and allows for staff to be productive wherever they are. If the goal is to have an agile approach to management of operations, while empowering personnel to choose how and when they work, the right MES can make all the difference.

Automation and AI will be adopted at an accelerated scale

75% of the 800 executives surveyed by McKinsey state that they are increasing investment in automation and AI. As Industry 4.0 started gaining adoption, it became more and more evident that repetitive jobs which do not require an extremely high skillset or cognizance can be fully or partially automated. AI too has benefits, in not only improving production efficiency and quality, but if AI is applied in the right context through the right provider and with the right application, it can fundamentally transform the way things are done and lead to innovations and improvements which weren’t even comprehensible to even industry experts.

MES applications help deploy AI and ML in manufacturing companies, where data for all avenues, including sensor and IoT data, is contextualized and compared with historical data. Advanced analytical algorithms are then applied and finally, information is delivered that can lead to meaningful changes and innovation.

Without a suitable MES in place, the extent of benefits which can be truly derived through automation and AI might be sub-optimal. Tools like the Gartner Magic Quadrant help companies make the right choice when it comes to the selection of commercially-available applications for a specific industry or segment. It is clear from the McKInsey findings that AI and automation will play a major role in every single industry segment; the majority is in manufacturing, as it involves a large share of repetitive tasks and has been impacted by a productivity deficit due to reduced workforces, supply chain constraints and in some cases, consumer demand.

Choosing and deploying the right MES is the first step toward realizing the true value of automation, AI and other Industry 4.0 technologies. It is the fundamental integration and assimilation of data that the MES allows at its core, coupled with orchestrated process design, delivery and management that makes automation a natural extension, rather than a forced improvement measure. Similarly, AI and ML should be in the repertoire of any respectable MES data platform. However, the industry-specific insights may vary from vendor to vendor and application to application, which we believe should be the most critical aspect when choosing a MES for your organization. 

Employment scenarios will change dramatically

It is expected that almost all advanced economies will see a decline in production and warehousing jobs, while there is a commensurate increase anticipated in management, professional and creative job segments. This means workforces of the future need to be prepared to re-skill and become digitally savvy. This is easier said than done; resistance to change is ubiquitous, which makes any transition a tough and daunting task. If however, companies use the tools at their disposal properly to create a tech-savvy workforce, the decline in repetitive jobs might be a boost for workforce productivity. They can gain new, relevant skills to be ready for the future and actively contribute to the organization’s goals and growth.

Source: McKinsey

An MES is the right platform to enable workforce transformation and re-skilling. It allows existing and future employees to keep in step with emerging trends and to work with the results of a significantly automated and intelligent manufacturing operation. MES, with its ability to offer simulation through AR/VR, is a great tool to train employees, existing and new, to get them acquainted with tasks and get a feel of working alongside co-bots and robots which are expected to do the ‘heavy lifting.’

The MES would also enable SOP (standard operating procedures) and work instruction modifications based on the job and relay instructions to shop floor personnel on their mobile devices, making their work simpler and performance more efficient.

MES is the foundation of digital transformation and Industry 4.0-led automation. MES also has a large role to play in empowering employees and workers to face the future. With the right training and support mechanisms in place, personnel can be placed in higher-value roles, guided by AR, VR, digital twins and work instructions through the MES.

From completely manual work to assembly lines, through automation and now as we enter the realm of cyber-physical, hyper-connected, fully automated, ‘lights out’ manufacturing, there is a continuum which emerges. It clearly shows that jobs involving intelligence and decision making will grow and jobs involving lower level, manual labor will decline.

With MES, this transition can be a seamless change for your workforce. Cross-functional collaboration between operations, engineering and the wider supply chain will enable smoother modification of workflows and allow new products to roll out faster than ever, even with or full-fledged remote labor.

People are and will always remain the most valuable resource of any organization. When they are trained and motivated to embrace change, enterprises flourish. Retaining an existing workforce through re-skilling will not only help preserve organizational knowledge and provide enhanced opportunities to your personnel, it will help create a better, more enriched community, which should be the result of any revolution, even an industrial one!