Effectively equipping frontline workers in the manufacturing sector

Effectively equipping frontline workers in the manufacturing sector

Microsoft’s Alfonso Rodriguez Lepage explains how technology is helping manufacturers address the biggest workforce challenges they face today, and the role Microsoft products can play

Richard Humphreys |

The manufacturing industry is currently navigating a complex landscape of challenges when it comes to attracting, nurturing and retaining talented employees with the skills they need to work productively and efficiently in the digital workplace.

“There are several factors impacting the industry in terms of talent,” says Alfonso Rodriguez Lepage, Microsoft’s director of product marketing for manufacturing. “First, there is a generational transition underway, where highly skilled workers with decades of institutional knowledge are nearing the age of retirement. Secondly, the industry is facing competition to attract and retain workers, as newer generations have different expectations about where and how they work. And lastly, once new talent is secured, the onboarding and upskilling of these workers is a slow and costly process for companies.”

Manufacturers are also contending with challenges caused by the widening skills gap, particularly in relation to finding employees who are able to work competently with new digital technologies.

“Manufacturers are facing strong competition for coveted talent with digital skills,” says Rodriguez. “An example of this is engineers that are critical for manufacturing operations, from design and engineering to production and supply chain. To mitigate this fierce talent market, manufacturers are investing in upskilling their existing workforce, and this is where technology can play a significant role in enabling workers.”

To address these challenges, manufacturers are focusing on creating an enriching work environment that nurtures existing employees and attracts new personnel, but how can that be achieved? What are the best practices and types of technologies that can be employed to help them reach these goals?

For Microsoft, creating a growth mindset culture is vital. The first step for manufacturing customers, Rodriguez advises, is to enable workers with the right technology skills and tools.

According to Microsoft’s 2022 Technology Can Help Unlock a New Future for Frontline Workers report, 63 per cent of frontline manufacturing workers are “excited” about the job opportunities that technology creates. However, they said that they are held back by not being involved early in the decision-making process for new technology initiatives. “The manufacturing workforce is highly skilled,” says Rodriguez. “Collaboration between employees and experts is essential for success.

“Organisational transformation is successful when all employees are unified and working with shared values and ideas. The leaders must start by bringing everyone on board with a company vision, including the predicted impact of technology on the business and the role each worker will play in realising that vision.”

Rodriguez says there are three main types of technologies that are crucial for supporting worker enablement: communication and collaboration tools, low code/no code applications and AI.

“The fast-paced, industrial, and sometimes hazardous, environments in manufacturing make immediate and clear communication critical to employee wellbeing and efficiency,” he says. “As workers throughout the industry feel the pressure of shortages, supply scarcity, and high demand, it will be more valuable than ever to have quick, clear and easy channels of communication.

“Collaboration and communication platforms can quickly help manufacturers onboard new employees and help them build skills with effective, and most importantly, familiar tools. This could include everything from walkie-talkie capabilities to custom role-based learning paths and mixed reality and AI capabilities.”

Microsoft 365’s comprehensive suite of products empowers organisations to enhance communication and collaboration for frontline workers, while also boosting operational efficiency and strengthening security.

Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Viva Learning provides a powerful learning platform integrated with Microsoft Teams to quickly train new employees or upskill the current workforce for tasks in other areas. In The Total Economic Impact Of Microsoft Teams For Frontline Workers report by Forrester Consulting, Teams for frontline workers significantly enhanced supervisory productivity, which returned millions of dollars’ worth of working hours to time-strapped frontline managers.

For example, Microsoft partner and smart buildings technology provider Johnson Controls is leveraging Teams to develop a network of ‘digital champions’ who are responsible for driving business goals. The digital champions programme evolved into an effort to foster digital leadership, peer-to-peer learning and knowledge sharing. Flaminia Curti, director of digital employee experience at Johnson Controls, said: “The goal of the digital champions programme was to upskill employees, unlock new opportunities and drive digital leadership, and we’re seeing that happen today.”

Technologies like low code/no code and conversational AI are also helping manufacturers to digitally transform.

“Employees expect their technology tools to be both collaborative and intelligent,” says Rodriguez. “In a recent survey conducted by Microsoft [Four Ways Leaders Can Empower People for How Work Gets Done], 77 per cent of employees wish that they had more access to low code/no code tools or platforms to build digital solutions that help them achieve their goals. By equipping anyone in the organisation with low-code tools, such as Microsoft Power Apps and Azure, organisations can empower workers to solve their own technical challenges, thereby driving autonomy, and ultimately faster innovation. This approach can also help to break down silos within the organisation and promote cross-functional collaboration.”

Meanwhile, AI is revolutionising how workers question and interact with their data, says Rodriguez. “We’re seeing new solutions, one of which is Azure AI, that allow users to get intelligent insights and analytics about the data in their manufacturing apps through a conversational chat experience.

“One example of this is Siemens, which is using generative AI to help industrial companies drive innovation and efficiency across the design, engineering, manufacturing and operational life cycle of products. AI-based translation embedded into these chat experiences makes them accessible to frontline workers in factories around the globe.”

Johnson Controls and Siemens are just two of many organisations already seeing a positive impact from leveraging Teams to drive business goals and using AI to drive innovation. “Microsoft is well positioned to help more manufacturing companies to effectively equip their frontline workers with digital technologies in the future,” says Rodriguez.

Partner perspectives

We asked selected analysts and Microsoft partners how Microsoft technology is helping manufacturers to attract and retain talent and address the skills shortage by reskilling or upskilling employees.

“We’re helping customers to gather feedback from their employees and use Microsoft Power BI to prioritise actions from that data,” says Tom Doran, chief marketing officer at Innovia Consulting. “This allows people to feel that they have a voice at work, helping to increase employee retention levels.”

“We use Microsoft’s ‘Modern Work’ suite of tools, which includes Microsoft Teams,SharePoint and the Microsoft 365 platform,” says David McLaughlin, principal and Dynamics 365 industrials leader at RSM US. “The Teams application includes a mobile app, which means you can use it as a framework to help manufacturers build an environment where employees can collaborate on key content.”

“Siemens’ Teamcenter app on Microsoft Teams, developed in partnership with Microsoft, leverages Azure OpenAI Service and ChatGPT to empower frontline workers and connect them to the enterprise,” says Joe Bohman, executive vice president of PLM Products at Siemens.

Read more from these partners as well as ARC Advisory Group, Infosys, Skkynet and Tulip Interfaces in the Autumn 2023 issue of Technology Record  

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