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Manufacturing workers are expected to do more than ever, better than ever. IIoT can help.

America is in the midst of a manufacturing renaissance. The multi-trillion-dollar industry is on track to dramatically ramp up production, quality, and revenue generation. But to stay the course, manufacturing leaders need a well-staffed and well-equipped workforce.

That’s by no means a sure thing. By 2030, manufacturers could be short 2.1 million workers. The workers that remain will need to do more work at a higher quality to meet customer expectations. Without efficiency-boosting tools, though, workers could wind up overstretched and burned out. The impact: more employee attrition, less satisfied customers, and lower revenue.

The good news is that emerging industrial IoT technology (IIoT) is helping workers do their jobs smarter and faster. The companies leveraging this tech are part of what McKinsey has termed the “titanium economy.” Together, they’re paving the way for “Industry 4.0”: a new era of smart manufacturing and industrial innovation.

By investing in innovative IIoT solutions, manufacturing leaders can future-proof their workforce and gain a foothold in this new phase of industry. The key: designing a strategy for continuous IIoT innovation.

Here, we’ll look at how IIoT is transforming factories and how leaders can strategize their IIoT innovation. But first, here’s more on why a potential labor shortage demands an investment in industrial technology.

Background: How a potential labor shortage could impact workers and companies

Industrial workers often have to do a number of manual tasks, like assembling product components by hand, physically checking products for maintenance, and routinely monitoring variable industrial environments.

These tasks don’t go away during a labor shortage. Instead, fewer employees are asked to do more work—often with little support.

This impacts workers in three important ways:

  1. Burnout. Many industrial workers already struggle with mental health. When workers feel overtaxed, they may suffer from depression and anxiety that can impact the energy available to complete each task at hand. And apart from the performance hit, burnout can even push workers to quit altogether. That makes it even harder to fill essential shifts and maintain morale for the folks that stay.

  2. Safety. Because industrial environments often operate on strict schedules, overtaxed workers may look for shortcuts. This can lead to unsafe practices that can result in injury or create hazards for fellow employees.

  3. Work quality. Apart from the safety impact, cutting corners can lead employees to create products that are less satisfying or safe for customers. At scale, this can seriously impact company revenue.

Without equipping their workforce with efficiency-boosting tools, leaders may create a factory environment that promotes burnout, harms workers, and fails to produce satisfying products. But emerging industrial technologies are streamlining some of the most time-consuming tasks on the factory floor.

In the next section, we’ll look at a few ways that industrial technology is already empowering workers to work faster, better, and safer.

Emerging technologies are powering the “smart factory”

With industrial IoT, manufacturing leaders can leverage connected sensors, AI algorithms, and robotics to remove many traditionally manual processes that bog down a workforce.

It’s worth stressing: this smart manufacturing technology isn’t meant to eliminate jobs. Instead, it gives workers time and energy to dedicate to their most essential tasks. And in a labor crunch, a “smart factory” environment can boost efficiency, better engage workers, lower burnout, and keep workers safe.

In a smart factory, employees can benefit from…

  • Predictive equipment maintenance. Connected sensors can continuously collect data about the health of a forklift or robotics arm. On a mobile app, employees can view the wear and tear of any piece of equipment—and get alerts when it’s time for maintenance or replacement.

  • Remote environmental monitoring. Wifi- or Bluetooth-connected data loggers can transmit sensor data to an environmental monitoring app. And with mobile capabilities, workers can get push notifications when a specified industrial environment has exceeded set limits on temperature, pressure, and humidity.

  • AI recommendation algorithms. Connected sensors can monitor the whole of an assembly line, identify areas that are inefficient (say, machinery that’s moving slower than usual), and suggest ways to improve.

Leaders can leverage smart manufacturing to transform the way employees work. The key is investing in technologies they’ll actually use—and devising a strategy to continuously improve that industrial technology as the needs of a workforce evolve.

That strategy must involve deep user research to gauge users’ pain points. It must include a product vision that clarifies your technology’s audience, differentiators, and goals. And it should include a roadmap to keep your teams on target.

In the next section, we’ll look closer at the key components of a sustainable IIoT innovation strategy that delivers highly usable products.

An IIoT innovation strategy can future-proof workers and factories

When it comes to IIoT, product innovation refers to a specific value system that balances the needs of…

  • Users.

  • The company.

  • The technology available.

With a product innovation approach, manufacturing leaders can build smart manufacturing solutions that are optimized for usability, practicality, and revenue generation.

What are the hallmarks of a sound product innovation strategy? In our experience, IIoT innovation depends on…

  • Bold ideation. Teams should feel empowered to think big in order to refine toward a workable solution.

  • Consistently engaging users. A tech investment is practically useless if it doesn’t meet the needs of workers on the ground. To understand those needs, teams have to engage with end users at every stage of the product development process.

  • Collaborative problem solving. With integrated teams, there are more voices in the room that can find new ways to overcome hurdles and implement ideas. The result: a stronger smart manufacturing product.

  • Embracing failure. Failure happens in every engagement. In a product innovation context, we test ideas early and often to ensure failures happen in small-scale, low-stakes environments so that we can learn from them and improve as we go.

But IIoT innovation depends on more than building one-off digital solutions. To adapt IIoT to the needs of a workforce, leaders need to establish an innovation culture. An innovation partner can help.

An innovation partner will interview users and company stakeholders to gauge their needs. They’ll help teams break down internal silos to get as many product ideas as possible into the room. They’ll work together with engineers, designers, and leaders to select and prototype the best solutions. And they’ll make sure the company is equipped to consistently build satisfying IIoT for years to come.

For the best ROI, find an experienced innovation partner

Investing in IIoT can be the key to realizing a full-scale US manufacturing renaissance. What’s more, it can help manufacturers stay competitive in the titanium economy, no matter the labor market. And with the help of an experienced innovation partner, leaders can trust that their IIoT investment will continuously boost workers’ efficiency and protect their bottom line.

That partner can be TXI. If you’d like to learn more about how we help manufacturing leaders achieve more with IIoT, we’d love to have a conversation.

Published by Jason Hehman , Andrew Horner in Industry 4.0

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