This article appeared in the May 2019 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.
Technology is advancing at a rapid pace and even the most well-prepared companies are at risk of falling behind. At the same time, locating, training and retaining skilled workers is a challenge faced by manufacturers of all sizes and across all regions of the state.
With limited resources, what should manufacturers do? Do they direct these resources to accelerating new tech growth or focus on securing a reliable talent pipeline?
In today’s modern manufacturing facility, what should be the proper balance between technology and talent?
Don’t Think “Balance,” Think “Integration”
It’s easy to think that technology and talent are two halves of the successful manufacturing coin and dedicating time to one can neglect the other, requiring manufacturers to look for ways to “balance” between the two. In fact, according to some leading technology professionals, this is the wrong approach and companies looking to balance between tech and talent end up creating even greater imbalance.
“Emerging technology and skilled trades talent are not areas that should be ‘balanced’ because that implies they are opposite forces that need to be brought into equilibrium,” said Michael Maddox, president & CEO of ASK, the Lansing-based provider of IT hardware, software, consulting and security solutions. “Integration is what manufacturers need to strive for. Talent and technology need to be integrated and, in order to do that, best-in-class businesses should develop a plan and work to implement it.”
Creating the right plan, a strategic roadmap to success, is critical for all manufacturers.
“Your plan needs to detail what emerging technology will be the most advantageous to the company in achieving short- and long-term goals. Equally important is how to train, retrain and incorporate skilled trades into that roadmap,” explained Maddox.
What’s the Must-Have Tech for Manufacturers in 2019?
There’s a variety of new tech out there and the continuing push toward Industry 4.0 is only offering more options for manufacturers to geek out over. Artificial intelligence. The industrial Internet of Things. Big data. Autonomous vehicle technology. Simulation. Additive manufacturing. Cyber security. What is ASK’s recommendation for the go-to choice of tech manufacturers must have?
Not surprising, it’s none of the above — or, at least, no single, all-encompassing tech of choice.
“It all depends on the strategic goals and direction for the manufacturer — we even have a saying at ASK that ‘technology has no intrinsic value on its own for a business’ — so, to be honest, the manufacturers that look outside their business for the right tech to use in their business are doing it wrong,” said Maddox. “Technology’s value is only derived from its ability to increase profit, reduce cost and streamline processes and how that is achieved can vary greatly from one company to another.”
In other words, don’t engage any area of emerging tech just because it’s the most talked about or appears to be the latest trend. What’s that mean?
“It means you can research all the technology you want but, when you’re ready to bring new technology into your facility, you need to start with internal conversations and then work with your technology partner to map your business initiatives to the technology,” suggested Maddox. “Start with what goals you want to achieve and then find the technology most likely to help you achieve those goals.”
Locating the Right Tech for You (Part 1)
While it is very important to vet potential technology partners, before you look to potential partners, make sure you know what it is you’re looking for. Some of these questions include:
- How do we view the role of technology in driving our business forward?
- Is the business capable and willing to invest in technology and cyber security in order to provide future growth and protection?
- Culturally, are we a company that truly values our vendors as partners?
- What internal technical resources do we have currently and are they operating at the efficiency level needed?
Locating the Right Tech for You (Part 2)
One of the biggest challenges seen by ASK and other industry supporters is the varied level of tech skills found in today’s manufacturers.
“Technology is not an area that most manufacturers have deep skills in,” said Maddox. “That’s not necessarily something that is their fault; the processes of the past decades simply did not demand the kind of technology knowledge that is required in the new era of manufacturing. Now we see manufacturers adjusting at a slower pace than the change in technology might require.”
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by technology, especially as a small- to mid-sized business. Between the variety of tech out there, the potential costs and the fear of choosing wrong and having to start over, many manufacturing executives can wait too long.
“Technology, especially in manufacturing, is really not dependent on the size of the business,” explained Maddox. “There are tech solutions and tools that can provide a real competitive advantage for companies of all sizes. The best advice is to utilize a partner that has the experience and skill to help you do that.”
At first glance, most technology providers look the same.
“Most technology providers bill themselves as experts at all things tech,” Maddox admitted. “That leaves the manufacturer very vulnerable. It is important to interview, discuss with peers and ask very pointed questions on experience before engaging an outside tech firm.”
Some questions that you can ask, as a part of this vetting process, include:
- How many people do you have solely dedicated to designing technology solutions?
- How large is your staff and can you provide a breakdown by position?
- Do you have a team that is solely dedicated to cyber security and, if so, what certifications and credentials do they hold?
- What vendors do you partner with to provide IT management and cyber security solutions?
- How many customers do you support in your industry at your size?
- Can you provide client references specific to the type of solutions you are recommending for our business?
“While it’s included in a couple of the questions, I would strongly reiterate the importance of any partner you work with having a deep knowledge of cyber security,” Maddox suggested. “Emerging technology in all forms can be very dangerous ground. Manufacturing, along with health care, are the two most targeted industries for cybercrime.”
You’ve Got the Tech. What About Your Talent?
Technological advances have given manufacturers tools and solutions to truly revolutionize their innovative processes. Furthermore, we may only be at the beginning of that curve as emerging solutions will continue to provide unprecedented opportunities in the future. However, without the talent to identify, implement, manage and use these solutions, your tech will never provide bottom-line results.
“No matter how innovative technology becomes, manufacturers still struggle to locate the skilled talent they need to operate the technology and to do the jobs that technology can’t do,” said Chuck Hadden, MMA president & CEO. “We are at the perfect point to develop new training programs and talent pipelines. We know what technology is out there, we know what jobs are still out there — all we need now is the right people.”
Training is best done through a combination of things. Local sources may be tied to schools and programs in your area. By looking locally, the manufacturer is provided with a source of incoming talent with a base knowledge of emerging technology.
As all new talent should be well-versed in the technology they’ll be using, employers must also work to upskill their existing workforce. This can be done through ongoing education and onsite training but should be prioritized as part of your overall technology strategy.
“Great talent always matters more than great technology, in every sector,” said Maddox. “Remember, technology does not control the talent — talent controls the technology.”
While training talent to use new technology is important, if the overall efforts to implement new technology aren’t properly monitored and measured, you could be throwing time and money down the drain. (Check out the list of tech-relevant skills important to the future workforce below.)
Ten Skills for the Future Workforce
- Sense-Making: ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed
- Social Intelligence: ability to connect with others in a deep and direct way, to sense and stimulate reactions and desired interactions
- Novel & Adaptive Thinking: proficiency at thinking and coming up with solutions and responses beyond that which is rote or rule-based
- Cross Cultural Competency: ability to operate in different cultural settings
- Computational Thinking: ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning
- New Media Literacy: ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media forms and to leverage these media for persuasive communication
- Transdisciplinarity: literacy in and ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines
- Design Mindset: ability to represent and develop tasks and work processes for desired outcomes
- Cognitive Load Management: ability to discriminate and filter information for importance, and to understand how to maximize cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques
- Virtual Collaboration: ability to work productively, drive engagement and demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual team.
Source: UHY LLP, an MMA Associate Member company since 2008. Information originally provided at 2018 MFG Forum.
“Your technology partner needs to have a very robust system for reporting metrics to you on a regular basis,” said Maddox. “These metrics need to be business-based, not technology-based. What efficiencies have been gained that are directly tied to the use of a technology solution? What is the impact of this on cost and revenue?”
Maddox continued, reminding manufacturers that “without the ability to clearly measure results, technology can become a burden that will weigh the business down. If done correctly, however, it can become a catalyst for driving the business to new levels.”
Looking to learn more about integrating talent and technology? Search for keywords cyber security, Industry 4.0, Internet of Things (IoT) and talent solutions for additional technology content or locate technology providers in your area through the MMA Member Directory.