The Intelligent Factory Transformation Is a Journey, Not a Destination

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, about 2500 years ago: the only constant in life is change. These days, when we envision the transformation to intelligent factories of the future, human-powered technology is driving that change.

Digital transformation on the factory floor is debunking a long-held fallacy that technology enables change and humans hinder it. The reality is that the intelligent factory is evolving as part of a continuous journey in which humans are the catalysts for change. In fact, a recent Intel study of manufacturing workers and leaders, that I co-authored with my colleague Faith McCreary, concluded that Industry 4.0 is fundamentally about the co-evolution of technology and the people developing and using it to improve efficiency and productivity.

Workers as Change Agents
Our Industry 4.0 survey found that workers see themselves as change agents, adding value by adopting new technologies that will keep their companies – and themselves – competitive. When we asked workers on the factory floor about the worst possible situation five years from now, they overwhelmingly agreed that “no change” was the least desirable outcome.

That said, many people in today’s workforce understand the mandate for change, and see themselves as essential for both framing new problems, and for identifying the best solutions. Fifty-six percent of our study participants view themselves as decision-makers at their companies, and almost everyone (98%) believes they have direct or indirect influence over technology adoption and implementation decisions.

Managers, operations and logistics coordinators, quality specialists, maintenance technicians, and line workers all believe they are already influencing the evolution of Industry 4.0. These workers are a vital force on the path to the future, and their willingness to “be the change” bodes well for companies that want to harness the power of their human capital in the future.

Systems-of-Systems View

Implementing and scaling smart technology solutions is an ongoing process. But companies all too often view the intelligent factory as a destination, someplace to be. A more enlightened perspective, perhaps, is that we are all immersed in an interconnected system-of-systems that is constantly changing. There is no one-size-fits-all path to the intelligent factory. Every company needs to embark on the journey in a way that reflects the needs and goals of their niche in the marketplace.

One common denominator for companies across sectors is the need for systems thinking that takes into account the connectivity between technology, workflow processes, and workforce capabilities. But the actual view through that systems-oriented lens will be unique for each manufacturer. Small volume/high mix discrete manufacturers, for example, will have different needs than high volume, continuous process manufacturers.

While the way in which technology will solve specific pain-points will differ by sector, the power of Industry 4.0 — including Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) — will drive innovative, new solutions. Nearly all of the manufacturers in our survey, for instance, said that unplanned downtime was a key problem. Although implementation strategies will differ by industry, IoT-connected sensors and AI-powered analytics are examples of Industry 4.0 tools that will facilitate predictive maintenance and reductions in unplanned downtime.

The journey to the intelligent factory of the future begins at the crossroads of workforce skills, technology, and existing infrastructure. The evolution of Industry 4.0 beyond those crossroads will be driven by IoT connectivity that includes a company’s internal assets and multiple inputs from partners, such as system integrators, automation and control equipment vendors, communications providers, machine builders, and, of course, customers. Remember, change is constant, and it’s already happening all around us.

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Irene and Faith McCreary, PhD, Principal Engineer in User Experience for the Internet of Things Group @ Intel, are the co-authors of the report: Industry 4.0 Demands the Co-Evolution of Workers and Manufacturing Operations. Learn more about the report and the survey results that facilitated it.

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