As artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other new technologies blaze trails in modern manufacturing, those on the factory floor should rest assured that their skill sets and outlooks are now needed more, not less, than ever before, especially in an economy where replacement employment is difficult. While automation and big data are the waves of the future, they cannot replace the years of experience and know-how that machine operators and line managers bring to the table every day. People in these roles can benefit from understanding how new technologies and processes in manufacturing empower them to focus on more pressing challenges while at the same time helping them benefit from higher visibility into operations and knowledge up and down the company ladder. Most importantly, they are the gatekeepers to successful implementation throughout the organization.

Using New Technology to Achieve More

Today, we use the term Industry 4.0 (I4.0) to refer to the kind of automated technologies, like AI and machine learning, designed to help factories run smoother and be more efficient. The problem is, some of the same diagrams and illustrations describing I4.0 are more than a decade old and have yet to be realized. Those I4.0 ideas can quickly become muddled if the reason why they are helpful gets lost among talking points and tech jargon. The factory floor does not have the luxury of dealing with abstractions. Daily quotas, target monthly goals, and efficiency levels are all concrete measures that clearly define success. As anyone on the factory floor can attest, their ability to meet goals depends on obtaining precise operational data. They also rely on broader organizational resources and processes designed to support them. It is best to think of I4.0as tools and techniques that help workers be more fully supported and factories to perform better. When all of the data has intelligently been made readily available, rather than having to gather the data on a project-by-project basis, you are now realizing an I4.0 environment.

The one goal of factory operations

Take, for example, the role of machine operators.

When boiled down to its essence, the factory staff has one goal: to keep their lines as productive as possible. Within that scope, however, there is no end to the challenges in maintaining consistent uptime. One of those is balancing productivity against the need for administrative tasks like reports and other paperwork.

These tasks have typically been a cumbersome process that forces machine operators and managers to stall their productivity to make rough estimates or loose gauges of their current output. If the data is misunderstood when reporting to leadership offsite, it can take a lot of time and energy to clarify. Feedback loops like this squeeze out the daily work of production and slows everyone down.

Automation and other technology-based solutions can help by collecting consistent, actionable information from the experience of the machine operators.

When modern data technology is married to the knowledge and experience of those on the factory floor, the resulting information provides actionable and insightful information that speeds up productivity. Everybody wins.

Using new data technology to collect machine and operator data also comes with two benefits that are important to mention. First, it lifts the burden from the machine operators. They don’t need to spend their time providing guesses and estimates. Second, machine operators have more time to be proactive about addressing problems, and they can work more closely with line managers to cut down on things like material waste.

Clarity and consistency across the lines

Line managers see similar benefits. While line managers find themselves overseeing processes, people, and quotas and not individual machines, the more transparent and precise data they gain allows them to do better work. Because the data they rely on is no longer created by assumptions or guesswork, line managers are free to track and meet KPIs more accurately and fine-tune production across machines.

Of course, these benefits created by new data technologies do not leave line managers with less to do. Line managers find themselves free to focus on issues that can benefit from their expertise when they spend less time trying to parse inaccurate data to parse inconsistencies. When problems do arise, the information and processes of Industry 4.0 also help them collaborate more closely with regional experts who now have access to the same information the factory and line staff do. That means line managers have access to more resources and a more fully equipped common tool kit that allows for quick response and rapid upscaling.

Even as new technologies and techniques create new visibility into manufacturing operations, the people on the factory floor are still the lifeblood of any operation.

Leading with new tools in hand

Their experience and understanding help provide insights and expertise that is largely irreplaceable by technology. Especially in today’s job economy, it’s not about replacement anymore. It’s about empowerment.

New data techniques do have the potential to help staff cut loose of ineffective, outdated tasks that only serve to produce inferior data, communication, and results, and to go beyond simply managing the factory. It also allows them to provide value while improving production operations, increase their voice within the broader operations- connecting them with people at every level of the organization and allowing them to speak to the same metrics. At the end of the day, as new technology finds its way onto the factory floor, those able to see them as valuable tools are the ones who will lead their teams and companies to success.