Smart factories: Can they lure the tech-savvy to their ranks?

13 August, 2019

Chad Moutray
Chief Economist, PwC US
Steve Pillsbury
Partner, PwC US

We’ve been hearing a lot of buzz around the smart factory, or fourth industrial revolution (4IR) for some time.

But, for an industry with a deep-seated reputation for hard skills that are generally physical and repetitive and highly specialized, how are manufacturers getting their workforce up to speed as they race into the worlds of artificial intelligence, learning robots, and the industrial internet of things?

Well, it’s happening, but it remains more of a work in progress.

In a recent survey carried out by PwC and the Manufacturing Institute (the thought leadership arm of The National Association of Manufacturers), we looked at how manufacturers are coping with making the most of advanced manufacturing – or 4IR technologies. We also explored how they’re getting the most out of employees working, increasingly, shoulder-to-shoulder (or, rather, tablet-to-machine) with those technologies.

The changing role of the manufacturing workforce is playing out in many ways. This could include everything from getting comfortable with autonomous forklifts to programming collaborative robots to accessing repair and maintenance data from a pair of smart glasses. And, increasingly, US manufacturers know that the automation technology will only be as good as the people who use, innovate and oversee it. For instance, our survey found that about 70% of manufacturers said that an increased demand of talent to manage the robotic workplace – and new jobs to engineer robots and their operating systems – will be the biggest impacts of robots on the manufacturing workforce over the next three to five years. Just consider that nearly 50,000 industrial robots joined the industrial workforce in North America in 2017 alone.

But, if a robotic workforce will be taking on more manual labor, where does that leave their human counterparts? Some undoubtedly will be replaced; indeed, about 20% of manufacturers say the biggest impact of robotics will be the replacement of workers. Meanwhile, however, some manufacturers (14%) say that the biggest impact of robotics will be an increased hiring of employees.

Given this rising and accelerating shift in talent demands, manufacturers are working on many fronts to upskill their workforces, according to our survey. One-third say they train employees in-house, with about 20% of those providing training outside the company (schools, online courses, etc.) and the same percentage recruiting STEM students. Such efforts are as important as ever, as manufacturers hurtle into an era when their operations becoming digitally tethered. They also are happening as more and more of their products are becoming “smarter” with embedded intelligence, data gathering and analytics and communications.

The new factory worker, then, will increasingly be called on to be more flexible to upskilling and to collaborate with others in the organization as technologies decentralize and “flatten.”

But there’s a larger backstory that needs to be addressed before the promises of the smart factory are fully realized. As manufacturers morph, in many ways, into tech companies, they need to promote themselves as such in order to reverse entrenched, decades-old perceptions about their industry as one that is only for manual workers, that the work is repetitive and even dangerous and generally lacks social prestige.

Manufacturers, then, need to get the word out that today’s smart factory is fast becoming more software than hardware and more about soft skills – creativity, reasoning, communication – than hard skills. In the end, these changes are not only better for the state of the industry but, much more important, for those who work in it.