Manufacturers around the world are under pressure to bring their factory workforce into the 21st century – but 57% of manufacturing leaders say that their organisation lacks skilled workers to support digitisation plans, according to a survey by Gartner.

The 2020 Gartner Smart Manufacturing Strategy and Implementation Trends Survey was conducted online between October and December 2020. In total, 439 respondents were interviewed across North America, Western Europe, and APAC.

“Our survey revealed that manufacturers are currently going through a difficult phase in their digitisation journey toward smart manufacturing,” says Simon Jacobson, vice-president analyst with the Gartner Supply Chain practice. “They accept that changing from a break-fix mentality and culture to a data-driven workforce is a must.

“However, intuition, efficiency and engagement cannot be sacrificed. New workers might be tech-savvy but lack access to best practices and know-how — and tenured workers might have the knowledge, but not the digital skills. A truly connected factory worker in a smart manufacturing environment needs both.”

Connected factory workers leverage various digital tools and data management techniques to improve and integrate their interactions with both physical and virtual surroundings while improving decision accuracy, proliferating knowledge and lessening variability.

Organisational complexity, integration and process reengineering are the most prevalent challenges for executing smart manufacturing initiatives. Combined, these challenges reflect the largest change management obstacles.

“It’s interesting to see that leadership commitment is frequently cited as not being a challenge,” says Jacobson. “Across all respondents, 83% agree that their leadership understands and accepts the need to invest in smart manufacturing.

“However, it does not reflect whether or not the majority of leaders understand the magnitude of change in front of them – regarding technology, as well as talent.”

Companies are recognizing the value and opportunity for smart manufacturing. However, just introducing new technologies is not enough. The factory workers must evolve alongside the technology and be on board for the changes to come.

“The most immediate action is for organisations to realise that this is more than digitisation. It requires synchronising activities for capability building, capability enablement and empowering people,” Jacobson says. “Taking a ‘how to improve a day in the life’ approach will increase engagement, continuous learning and ultimately foster a pull-based approach that will attract tenured workers.

“They are the best points of contact to identify the best starting points for automation and the required data and digital tools for better decision-making.”

In the long term, it is important to establish a data-driven culture in manufacturing operations that is rooted in governance and training – without stifling employee creativity and ingenuity.

“It’s great when workers use digital tools to build their own experiences, and in turn improve productivity. It’s the manufacturing leaders’ job to make sure to minimise the risk of shadow IT and ensure that digital knowledge is shared among factory workers,” says Jacobson.