Big data. The Internet of Things. Smart devices. Advanced robotics. The manufacturing world is abuzz with the promises of increased productivity, better information and improved margins at the metaphorical hands of these technological advances.

However, two things often are missing from these conversations, and one is the element of time. While much of the conversation is about the future benefits of these technologies, the truth is the future is now, at least in part. Manufacturers are deploying these advanced technologies today, and their use will only continue to grow. Pratt & Whitney, for example, has big plans for Big Data. Yet its benefits have already been proving instructive for years.

The second element perhaps missing in these conversations is enough detail about the human element. How does the introduction of these advanced technologies – and many more -- change the workforce's relationship with manufacturing? How do they build a better workforce, as well as a better workplace?

Ed Rodden of food processor SugarCreek can tell you that connected devices will aid in building a safer workplace. Japan's Denso believes in IoT's potential to augment employee involvement in continuous improvement. And General Electric talks about robots in terms of partners. In short, these new technologies are reimagining the workforce's relationship with manufacturing and will continue to do so.

Read how these four manufacturers are taking advantage of advanced technologies today and how they anticipate the future.

Communicate and Connect 

Like many companies, SugarCreek keeps its eye on building a better enterprise. Recently the food processor began production at its newest manufacturing plant in pursuit of that aim. The 418,000-square-foot facility, located in Cambridge City, Ind., is noteworthy on several fronts. One, it is nearly four times larger than any of SugarCreek's five other locations. Two, three high-volume cooking cells, including what the company says is the nation's largest sous vide line, will allow SugarCreek to compete in food categories it couldn't previously.

And three, it's been developed to take advantage of advances in technology, including the Internet of Things and collaborative technologies.

"The IoT … is a bit of a buzzword as many companies, including manufacturing operations, have been connecting things for many years. What's different today is the enormous variety and numbers of 'things' being connected," says Rodden, SugarCreek CIO. "At [Cambridge City] we built our network to maximize the ease and opportunity of connecting things."

"For us, the most important things to connect are people, as collaboration, in all of its forms, is a key driver to success," he says.

Rodden's words aren't so different from those of Koji Arima, president and CEO of Japan's Denso Corp. In remarks at several events, including the 2015 Frankfurt Motor Show, Arima discussed how the auto supplier would build momentum. He, too, takes a human approach to IoT. "The key is people. The operating principle is to achieve sustainable momentum by getting everyone involved in making continual improvements and in achieving breakthrough innovations," he said, according to a press conference transcript.

Importantly, "A crucial dynamic is the cyber linkage of the Internet of Things. That linkage integrates the motivated people at our production workplaces around the world. Everyone shares information in real time, as if they were all working under the same roof. That speeds our progress in transforming production processes and in transforming products," he added.

Arima describes the cyber linkage as "synergistic." "Our production workplaces invigorate each other in a virtuous circle of problem finding and problem solving."

The Denso CEO noted that Denso has 150,000 pieces of equipment on 2,500 production lines at 130 plants. They are not all integrated in the desired single, global production platform -- yet. The company's goal is to complete that in the next few years.

Connections at SugarCreek's Cambridge City location include a network that supports internal collaboration via a wide variety of devices, from tablets, telephones and applications like Cisco's Jabber, which allows instant messaging and video conferencing among those devices, to external collaboration with vendors who can remotely yet securely access and diagnose machinery. Process sensors and machine data are connected to the network, via both wired and wireless fashions.

Video cameras are used extensively in SugarCreek's operations and on its networks. Approximately 250 high-definition cameras at the Cambridge City facility assist in the safety of people and food, and also provide a wealth of analytics. "We are using video software to look for objects that don't belong in a product stream, or for the presence of people in areas they should not be in," Rodden says.

And speaking of safety, the CIO said the company is preparing to implement RTLS, or real time location services. Specifically, SugarCreek will place "tags" in the bump caps everyone must wear at the facility. These tags will track the location of all personnel in real time. It's being done primarily for safety purposes, Rodden says, and in a video he describes an evacuation scenario in which everyone's location can be accounted for.

That said, "it will also allow us to evaluate job designs and gain a much deeper understanding of where labor hours are being consumed," he says.