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The Connected Worker Platform and the New Connected Economy

By: Brenda Santos

November 17, 2020

The Connected Worker Platform and the New Connected Economy

In past industrial revolutions, we’ve seen incredible innovations that have changed the face of manufacturing and production. Each one has added to the revolution and technology that preceded it. But our latest industrial revolution, Industry 4.0, is a little different. Not only has Industry 4.0 added to the previous revolutions’ technology, it has also empowered the employee through connected worker platforms, changing the manufacturing industry’s reliance on the past revolutions’ technology and processes. Let me explain.

By now, you’re probably familiar with the past industrial revolutions. But here’s a quick overview.

  • Industry 1.0 was the beginning of the factory system and mechanization.
  • Industry 2.0 was the rise and implementation of manufacturing assembly lines.
  • Industry 3.0 was the first automation of production with ERP systems and programmable machines.
  • Industry 4.0 is building new levels of integration and intelligence through the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

We are in the early stages of the fourth industrial revolution, which continues the evolution of manufacturing technology and the industrial workforce, i.e. the connected worker platform. Each action that a connected worker takes is assisted and transmitted within a larger organizational context that provides useful information for the company, the manufacturing supply chain, and the connected economy.

connected worker platforms

Additionally, connected worker platforms empower operators’ processes through integration with hardware and software systems; providing crucial knowledge and instructions, training new and old employees, recording and analyzing data, and assisting in daily tasks.

With Industry 4.0 technology and practices, connected worker platforms bring about new production capabilities that enable manufacturers to efficiently perform one-off production and mixed-model assembly.

The idea of efficient one-off production and mixed-model assembly is somewhat contrary to the past use of the assembly line and the mass production of one item. In other words, though the innovations of the Second Industrial Revolution are still being effectively used and improved by Industry 4.0, manufacturers are now also able to effectively fulfill consumer demand for mixed-model assembly.

Thanks to technological advancements in IoT, data retrieval, and analytics, manufacturers can review production lines and accurately implement improved processes which in turn create new opportunities for growth and continuous improvement.

While creating an ecosystem of connectivity between machines, workers, manufacturing supply chains, and the larger connected economy, we have to ask: what is driving this historic transformation?

Supply and Demand

Industry 4.0 and the economy (specifically e-commerce) are effectively transforming and being transformed by supply and demand. By changing one of these fundamental forces, the others follow suit.

  • Demand: E-commerce is changing consumer behavior and expectations.
  • Supply: Industry 4.0’s technological development drives change in manufacturing and production.

Change in Demand

It’s little talked about, but one of the major forces behind the development of Industry 4.0 is the continued growth of e-commerce. It’s probably no surprise to you that e-commerce companies, such as Amazon.com, are changing the way that consumers buy things. However, the scale of the revolution occurring is stunning. According to Walmart, their discount stores average 107,000 square feet, employ an average of 225 associates and offer 120,000 items. On the other hand, as Emily Dayton explains in Amazon Statistics You Should Know, Amazon has a total of 12 million products available alone. If adding Amazon Marketplace Sellers, that number skyrockets to 350 million.

As Walmart and Amazon encroach on each other’s turf, this is becoming a battle of epic proportions as Walmart’s own e-commerce sales contend with Amazon’s stronghold on online shopping.

Consumers have learned to expect and demand access to a wide range of different products online. E-commerce is shaping consumer behavior and expectations and therefore, shaping entire supply chains.

Change in Supply

While consumers’ expectations have changed demand, manufacturers and retailers have learned to change and adapt their supply.

When someone is in a physical store, they may pick an item from the shelf, look at the label, and review if this product is right for them. If the item is not purchased and is placed back on the shelf, the seller gains no insight on the potential transaction.

Online shopping is completely different. Companies are able to gain insights into prospective demand far earlier in the purchase cycle. When online shoppers evaluate products, view consumer reviews, and exchange items in and out of their shopping carts, their behavior provides useful data that can be used to improve the company’s business model and supply chain.

With the fast and accurate data retrieval capabilities of e-commerce, companies can seize new opportunities in the consumer products supply chain. Additionally, now products are ordered and shipped to consumers one at a time, offering a reduction of expenditures in inventory capital and more importantly, sending useful data back to manufacturers and retailers.

We’ll say it again, e-commerce is revolutionizing the way that consumers purchase an ever-growing range of products. Advancements in technology are enabling companies to adapt their supply and meet that demand.

Manufacturers who wish to play a role and thrive in the e-commerce ecosystem will need to quickly adapt and demonstrate an agile response to variable product demand and consumer feedback.

The Connected Economy

In 1913, Ford simplified the assembly of the Ford Model T by breaking its 3,000 part assembly into 84 distinct steps. These steps were then performed by teams of workers as a rope pulled the vehicle chassis through the factory. The new process revolutionized production and decreased the assembly time for a single vehicle from 12 hours to about 90 minutes.

The Ford Model T was only offered in black from 1914-1925. Henry Ford said: “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it’s black,” This policy was implemented for the purposes of efficiency and uniformity on the assembly line.

Ford assembly line

Production efficiency increased radically due to the rigid application of highly repeatable discrete steps that minimized errors in the final product. This Industry 2.0 approach has led to higher quality products at mass-production levels.

However, when you see a migration from a physical store that holds 120 thousand different products to an online store that holds 350 million different products, clearly a profound change is occurring in the number of unique products that consumers demand.

Consumers no longer want only black cars.

Manufacturers that are a part of e-commerce supply chains will be faced with the need to cost-effectively produce products that are more varied and more customized. These pressures will lead manufacturers to adapt and ultimately master one-off production and mixed-model assembly practices.

Essentially, Industry 4.0 is turning Industry 2.0 assembly on its head.

One-off production and mixed-model assembly require a re-thinking of the identical and repeatable steps used within the manufacturing assembly line. Instead, manufacturers need to be agile in real-time and empower workers with the ability to perform a much wider range of tasks as they manufacture a much wider range of products.

Complex supply chains are often composed of vertical operations stacked one upon the next, with each step possibly creating alternative follow on steps to get to the ideal final product. Even if one company can pull through on all the above-mentioned points, you have many other suppliers along the way who need to do the same.

This means that to successfully run one-off production and mixed-model assembly in Industry 4.0, we cannot only think of ‘connected workers’ as being connected within a discrete production cell, area, or plant but rather as being connected directly to the larger e-commerce supply chain and the connected economy.

Manufacturers that are part of this connected economy and these supply chains now have a crucial question to consider: How do we hold onto the efficiencies of large-scale manufacturing in a mixed-model assembly environment?

In the Ford manufacturing assembly line, workers could be quickly trained to perform the highly repetitive tasks asked of them. Mistakes could be caught down the line and accidents minimized through work design. Implementing one-off production and mixed-model assembly re-introduces the risk of errors and accidents dramatically because the assembly is always changing or completely different.

This type of assembly requires skilled and experienced workers. But we are currently in an age of qualified worker scarcity. Companies are having to adapt to a workforce consisting of summer students and interns, new employees with little training and experience, and skilled workers soon retiring.

Being a part of the e-commerce revolution as a manufacturer amidst these workforce challenges will demand a revolutionary approach to supporting individual workers. Especially as product variations continue to proliferate and production moves to a model of N=1.

Solutions With The Connected Worker Platform

An essential aspect to workers being ‘connected’ is having easily digestible, clear, accurate, and up to date work instructions at every step of a product’s journey.

The digitization of work instructions is an essential strategy in Industry 4.0 and mixed-model assembly. It’s the only way to provide workers with the knowledge necessary to accurately and efficiently produce an ever-growing range of product variations.

VKS work instructions software connects workers directly to the larger production system, ensuring that the right step is occurring at the right time in a repeatable and consistent way. Digital work instructions lower costs, increase quality, and deliver on the promise of mixed-model assembly with timely products that can meet the market price point and specifications in an ever-evolving production environment.

With VKS, operators integrated into a connected worker platform can get real-time quality control data on their work which greatly reduces unseen errors and problems. Employees receiving step-by-step instructions in real-time reduces the amount of confusion and the amount of time it takes to do each task, enabling agile production lines.

With Industry 4.0 technological advancements in data communication, process instruction, and worker education, the worker is strongly connected to your business and automatically that much more productive.

The Connected Economy Requires Connected Workers With Digital Work Instructions

Connected economy

As we’ve seen, a crucial step to entering the connected economy is to connect the workers. Connected worker platforms are integral to meeting the demands of e-commerce due to their profound effects on the modern manufacturing supply chain. By connecting workers, companies can better track, improve, and collaborate within their industry.

An easy Industry 4.0 win is to implement digital work instructions, thereby integrating workers with their tasks, their tools, and also within the larger organizational context. Companies faced with new challenges brought by e-commerce demand and qualified worker scarcity need to seize the opportunity to empower and connect their workers with digital work instructions.