Smart Manufacturing Needs Smart People

According to one CEO who runs a smart factory himself, the whole concept must begin with people, not machines.

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I recently received an email from a PR firm pitching me a story written by one of their clients. Though I decided not to run the article as it was submitted—chiefly because we tend to focus on technology, and the article leaned toward business—I found it interesting that it focused on something we have been reporting on quite a bit lately—Industry 4.0 or smart manufacturing. Interesting enough to devote this page to its message.

The article was written by Steven L. Blue, president and CEO of Atlanta-based Miller Ingenuity, which makes safety products in the form of hardware, software, firmware, and sensors for the freight and passenger transportation industries. The article was based on a book Blue has written, American Manufacturing 2.0: What Went Wrong and How to Make It Right. The gist of both Blue’s book and article is this: Smart manufacturing is not the salvation of American manufacturing and cannot be executed without smart people, top to bottom.

A somewhat ironic premise, Blue admits, since his firm has a smart factory of its own, employing “the latest in pick-to-light systems, automated CNC machines, and seamless integration from order inquiry to accounts receivable,” he says.

The problem, as Blue sees it, is that top manufacturing management is putting all its eggs in the technology basket and ignoring “the astonishing potential of the workforce and turned toward automation instead.”

He opines, “What is the sense in spending millions on auto- mating your factory if your workforce could care less? What is the sense in buying expensive (machinery) if your workforce can’t wait to get to the bowling alley, yet drag themselves to work? I’ll tell you why. Because too many CEOs view their employees as expendable assets. They should view them as renewable resources. And renew them.”

Smart manufacturing starts with a smart workforce, Blue says. And his message to manufacturing management whose workforce isn’t smart is to the point: “It’s your fault, not theirs.” He continues, “You have to make a new compact with your employees. You need to ignite the human spirit in your workforce. Imagine this: What would happen if every day your employees came to work excited to do better today than they did yesterday? Imagine how your company would soar if your employees were absolutely dedicated to supporting the mission and each other in attaining it? Imagine what it would be like if your employees were like Cirque de Soleil performers?”

Blue adds, “Start by building a smart workforce. A workforce that is engaged, enlightened, and empowered. A workforce that trusts in its leadership. A workforce that believes in its leader- ship. Tall order to be sure—especially if the leadership is a bunch of boneheads that care more about depreciation than employee engagement.”

Smart manufacturing starts with creating a new compact with the workforce, Blue states. Smart manufacturing starts with people, not machines.

I know what you must be thinking. So where am I going to get these people? And once I do, how do I improve their skills? Let’s save that discussion for another column. Right now I’m going to check out the book.