Young people joining the workforce today grew up with vastly different technological toys than the baby boomers whose shoes they're stepping into. Consequently, they have different preferences about how they receive information.
This difference is crucial to manufacturing executives, because manufacturing operations amass huge amounts of information that have to be passed down the generational line. And with workforce demographics changing as baby-boom retirements ramp up, this knowledge transfer process has to happen faster than it used to.
Most companies are tackling this challenge by digitizing their workflow processes and converting that information to formats better suited to young workers' preferences.
We recently talked with Don Busiek, general manager of operations management software for GE Intelligent Platforms, to learn more about how companies are managing this transition and using it to make their operations more productive and competitive.
IndustryWeek: From your standpoint, what's the key challenge manufacturers face as baby-boom retirements accelerate and workforce demographics shift toward younger employees?
Don Busiek: First of all, you've got people who've been working at a plant their entire lives, and they understand that plant like they do the back of their hand. And now they're starting to retire. Combine that with the trend of big data: All of the machines on the plant floor are now Internet-capable, they all have OPC connections, so you've got huge volumes of data flowing off the machines telling you if they're performing correctly, what their uptime is, what's their efficiency is, etc. And you've got people who know what to do with that information because they've been dealing with it for the last 40 years—but, as I said, those people starting to retire.
Then, combine those two trends with a third: You've got a new generation of twentysomethings coming in who expect a user experience with their technology that rivals what they get on their iPhones, their video games and Facebook.
Those three trends are happening right now. That's kind of the apex of what we're seeing on the plant floor.
IW: How are manufacturing companies dealing with this convergence of big data and demographic shifts?
DB: Forward-thinking companies are leveraging technology to take advantage of all three of these trends. They're not only tackling the fact that they've got workforce transition; they're also leveraging technology to make their plant more competitive. And one of the main ways they're doing this is by digitizing their work orders, their work processes, their best practices, and so on.
IW: What types of media are they using to do this?
DB: Well, historically what they had was giant stacks of paper sitting in their work cells—books, paper instructions, five-inch-thick manuals. But that format doesn't work for a 22-year-old who grew up on iPhones and Facebook—who's accustomed to clicking and having information pop up in front of them.
So what's happening today is a transformation. People expect the data to be driven to them on a variety of media sources. Whether it's an iPhone, an iPad, a ruggedized device, a human-machine interface screen—the information needs to be pushed to that employee electronically. So manufacturers are taking all of that data and creating a set of best practices—electronic standard operating procedures—so they can push the information to the right person at the right time on the right device. That's what cutting-edge plants are doing. They're not just digitizing the work process; they're doing it in a variety of form factors, and then leveraging the explosion of big data to drive best practices on the plant floor.
IW: Are there individual manufacturing sectors where this process is taking root more quickly than others?
DB: This is the direction that everyone is aspiring toward. Some are already there; some are trying to get there. Where you see it taking hold fastest is in industries that have high margins: pharmaceuticals, chemicals, aviation equipment, aerospace. Industries where quality is of a high level of importance; industries where they have a lot of manual work instructions—a lot of manual steps—and where they have high enough margins to be able to invest. That's the combination that we're seeing drive innovation on the plant floor.
IW: If you could give manufacturing executives one piece of advice to help them get a better handle on managing this challenge, what would it be?
DB: Here's what it boils down to: User experience matters. The ability to leverage technology, to make your company more competitive, to recruit top talent, to improve the efficiency of the plant—all of that circulates around user experience. If my operator or supervisor or plant manager loves the experience of using the manufacturing software I have, they're going to be in it, they're going to be leveraging it, and you're going to see value from it. But if that user finds it hard to use the software, they're not going to do it. They won't get value from it.
You can invest all you want in technology and all the great things we've talked about—pushing data to hand-held devices, pushing data to iPhones, putting KPI charts on the plant floor—all of that stuff will only work if the user experience is strong, simple, and easy to use.
Why? Think about it. Why do people like Facebook? Why have iPhones taken off? Because the user experience is simple. My 3-year-old daughter has been playing with my iPhone and my wife's iPad for a year. That's how simple it is. And that's what matters. If you can make the technology that simple, you're going to have spectacular adoption, and you're going to drive the value that you want.
We're at an inflection point in the manufacturing industry. You've got the key trends we've discussed: an aging workforce; younger workers coming in; the need to capture knowledge before that workforce turns over; big data flowing off machines on the plant floor; technology innovations, like iPhones and iPads, that we've never had before. The most forward-thinking companies—the ones that will be leading their respective industries a decade from now—are the ones who use technology to harness those trends to drive increased competitiveness.