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  • By Mike Train
  • Executive Corner

By Mike Train

Over the past 30 years, advances in automation have done fantastic things for the manufacturing sector in terms of reliability, safety, and operational efficiency. But today, despite all the hype about the promise of the Internet of Things, the industry has reached a point where those gains are leveling off. Manufacturers cannot simply "efficiency their way" to top-quartile performance any longer.

In this environment, managers have the relentless pressure to do more with less. Do they cut back on staff and ask more of the workers they keep? Will the sensational headlines claiming that automation kills jobs come true? These reports routinely miss the big picture. History has taught that while technology can unsettle the current nature of work, disruption consistently brings new opportunities for value and net employment growth, not loss.

New era of productivity

Capitalizing on these opportunities means not only investing in technology, but also fundamentally transforming the way you do business. But while it is clear manufacturers understand the need to evolve, many struggle to find a predictable path forward.

To take the next step to game-changing performance, manufacturers should focus on implementing technologies that empower the assets that will be the biggest driver of success in the future: their people. By analyzing the organizational behaviors of top-quartile industry performers, we have identified five essential competencies that are critical to helping workers achieve this digital transformation: automated workflow, decision support, workforce upskilling, mobility, and change management.

Automated workflow: One of the best ways to create bottom-line impact is to eliminate repetitive tasks and allow employees to focus on the exceptions to normal operations. They can solve problems and identify opportunities for value creation. For example, electronic logbook applications that automatically capture detailed records of user activity and track tasks during work shifts let operators access a historical knowledge base, which can help them plan work priorities and facilitate collaboration.

Decision support: Enabling workers to be more productive means arming them with actionable information for faster, better decision making. This might mean using predictive intelligence to troubleshoot the root cause of an impending pump failure. With better insight into asset health, maintenance crews can schedule repairs when it makes the most economic sense.

Workforce upskilling: Obviously, you cannot expect an employee who is used to doing manual tasks to be proficient in advanced analytics and critical problem solving right away. The good news is that there are innovative training formats today that can greatly accelerate workforce development. With both high-fidelity training environments that immerse students in real-world scenarios and on-demand expertise, it is possible for operators to gain years of experience in just months. They can immediately put the concepts they learn to work on the plant floor.

Mobility: To tap the full power of all these new tools and technologies, it is essential to put them in the hands of employees wherever and whenever they need them, securely, of course. This idea is key to enabling collaborative workflows. If control room operators need to ask a process engineer how to solve a problem or make a step change to improve performance, they can do so from halfway around the world with secure mobile applications. These applications provide process data and analysis to both parties in real time.

Change management: A recent survey conducted by Emerson and IndustryWeek found that 47 percent of respondents saw change management as the biggest challenge to their operational efficiency programs. An automation supplier that can bring together the right strategies, tools, and expertise will help manufacturers address this problem by simplifying the institutionalization of operational best practices. Consulting will play a central role in this process, especially as knowledge and experience becomes easier to share with customers remotely.

Bright future

Automation innovations are bringing unprecedented opportunities to evolve performance in each of these areas of transformation. Companies and employees who embrace the rapidly changing digital landscape will achieve the greatest success. Everyone has skin in the game. Employers need to offer education and upskilling opportunities, and employees need the confidence and commitment to learn new skills and embrace change. By adopting these methodologies and putting power in the hands of workers to use technology investments today, manufacturers can put themselves on the path to achieving top-quartile performance in any market.

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About The Authors

Mike Train is executive president of Emerson Automation Solu-tions. He leads strategies and innovations to help customers enhance operations and achieve top-quartile performance. Train was also president of global sales for Emerson Process Management, overseeing five world area regional organizations.