Original publication: Industry Week, 10 February, 2022
Operations leaders today, now more than ever, are facing pressures to do more with less. It seems like each refresh of the news feed presents another data point around labor shortages, whether from employee resignations or employees sidelined due to illness. Further, plant managers are being asked to increase output to meet market demand—many hearing from their sales teams, “If we can make it, we can sell it.”
Historically, a common lever was to add labor to help tackle the new work. Now, plant managers are turning their project focus to other means to do more with less. Two examples that are top of mind are:
In fact, Reuters recently reported that almost 40,000 robots joined the North American workforce in 2021, which represents growth fueled by record demand and pandemic-fueled labor shortages. As one can imagine, onboarding all these robots takes some effort by the teams tasked with carrying out each deployment.
In general, once strategic plans have been defined, the next challenge is a lack of internal resources to carry out the projects. The biggest hurdle in completing factory transformation initiatives today is not justifying the ROI, but rather the scarcity of engineering time and other organizational factors that threaten execution.
To increase the likelihood of success, plant managers will benefit from thinking through the challenges ahead of time and spreading responsibility across multiple working groups.
Transformation projects like robotics or connected factories add stress to organizations in a multitude of ways. Time constraints and competing priorities must be acknowledged, especially when asking the already stretched-thin engineering ranks to take on more while fighting the day-to-day fires. New projects may also approach the limits of a team’s expertise, especially among first-time adopters who have not yet developed the in-house know-how. Further, but often overlooked, is factory transformation initiatives often demand historically siloed working groups to collaborate—this is especially true in projects where stakeholders from IT, OT and operations must converge to ensure the interdependencies of new technology will mesh well.
Navigating these challenges—all within the broader context of labor shortages that are pressuring the site as a whole—can be a lot to ask of the group charged with carrying out a strategic project.
These five leadership choices have been observed to help limit additional strain on already busy teams and increase likelihood of success in completing projects.
Ultimately, embarking on factory transformation initiatives in already resource-constrained environments can seem daunting. However, thoughtful leadership from the beginning helps set the tone and establish a team-first mentality as organizations collectively drive toward executing ambitious plans. Like any transformation project, it is imperative to be cognizant of the human element for how jobs may change—not just when the projects conclude, but also on the journey to get there.
Jeff Chu leads Factory of the Future Consulting at Eckhart, an Industry 4.0 solutions provider that supports some of the largest manufacturing operations in the world.