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The new rules of engagement on the factory floor

In a human/machine-centric world, digital manufacturing leaders are redefining their workforce—and people come first.

by Rene Wiedemann and Christian von der Gruen


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We’ve entered a new era of digital-first manufacturing, where smart machines bring speed and accuracy to repetitive tasks, support hands-free work and provide real-time data access. Humans, for their part, bring discernment, abstract thinking and creative problem solving—skills machines simply do not have.1 As humans and machines come together on the factory floor in radically new ways, neither can succeed without the other.

By developing a connected industrial workforce (people and machines working together to reinvent production and service processes), manufacturers can improve productivity, operational efficiency, value chain visibility, safety and risk management.2 They also can address such issues as rising labor costs in some countries and labor shortages in others. In some cases, machines, by making local production more attractive and feasible, can even reduce the incentive to shift labor to low-cost countries.

Still, the path to these benefits isn’t always obvious. To realize the full potential of the connected industrial workforce, manufacturers must create an environment where humans and machines can deliver outcomes together that neither could produce in isolation.


Machine technology has a come a long way since Unimate, the unwieldy 4,000-pound robotic arm that started welding die castings onto auto bodies in the early 1960s.3 Today’s collaborative robots are safe, compact, and adaptable and can perform many functions without human supervision. Wearables literally connect machines to the human body. Humans and machines now work with each other, not just near each other.

Manufacturing will evolve from human to human/machine-centric within the next five years.

This real-time, two-way collaboration is turning the traditional production environment upside down. Manufacturing will evolve from human- to human/machine-centric within the next five years. Thirty percent of executives expect a move to human augmenting machines by 2020, according to Accenture research. Only 11 percent see the shift happening today.4

Several things are certain about this workforce revolution. It is inevitable, it is happening fast and humans are driving this new approach to work. Critical to its success? Seamless human-machine bonding.


Although manufacturers recognize the importance of the connected industrial workforce, many are not ready to harness its benefits. While 94 percent of manufacturing executives say they are aware of this workforce evolution, only 22 percent have already implemented corresponding measures. Companies across the sector today are spending an average of 18 percent of their R&D budget on connecting their workforce. Five years from now, they expect, this allocation will rise to 24 percent.5 Will this investment be too little, too late for some companies? What’s clear is the companies must begin reallocating their investments now.

The transformation has already begun among pioneers in this space such as global engineering leader Siemens. By automating some production lines to the point where they can run unsupervised for several weeks, Siemens’s “lights out” manufacturing plant is bringing the company closer to realizing a fully self-organizing factory. The plant still requires 1,150 employees to support it, many of whom focus on programming, monitoring and machine maintenance.6

ASML, a leading manufacturer of chip-making equipment, has explored having clean room engineers receive instructions through smart glass technology so they get the right information and support when and where they need it. The technology displays step-by-step procedures and provides over-the-shoulder coaching and interactive updates such as error reporting, video uploads and instruction modifications in real time.

What’s holding other companies back? The manufacturing executives Accenture surveyed say that data security concerns, implementation complexity and legacy equipment limitations are potential challenges to adopting the connected industrial workforce. But this is only part of the story; humans are the rest of it.


The majority (70 percent) of manufacturing executives we interviewed cite a lack of skilled workers as their biggest concern with the connected industrial workforce. A workforce that is not ready for the change and not equipped with adequate qualifications and skills to support connected machines could wipe out potential efficiency gains.

Yet workers with the right skills are increasingly difficult to find. For starters, the United States, parts of Europe and Asia could face significant labor shortages in the coming years due to demographic changes. Consider, for example, that the number of workers in Japan is expected to plummet from 64 million in 2014 to 56 million in 2030.7

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The challenge is not just about filling spots on the production line. The human workforce needs cross-functional and interdisciplinary skills (see graphic) and a comfort level with machines on the shop floor as well as with digital tools. For many, this will require a 180-degree shift to a mindset that embraces the value of the human-machine partnership and the opportunity for more satisfying, high-value work. For a successful transformation, manufacturers should offer all of their workers, regardless of their current skill level, equal access to upskilling opportunities.


No one-size-fits-all blueprint will enable manufacturers to build the connected industrial workforce. However, companies can put some fundamentals in place to create and sustain an environment where humans and machines flourish.

  • Create champions in the boardroom. Executive ownership is key to driving people, process, technology and culture changes and to ensuring sufficient funding streams. C-suite leaders must be fully committed and avoid being distracted by competing interests. Leadership should seek insight from operations managers whose firsthand view of production efficiency as it is—and could be—should guide the transformation. This ground team can also help quantify and measure progress to strengthen the business case.

  • Pinpoint who should do what and how. Balancing human-machine collaboration is both an art and a science, and manufacturers need to become value architects. This means companies must analyze market trends while deconstructing their value chains to find the areas where the connected industrial workforce can provide benefits, from increased productivity to better safety to improved product or service offerings for the customer.

  • Acknowledge the elephant in the factory. The manufacturing workforce understandably has a love-hate relationship with machines. Although they can improve working conditions and offer new job opportunities, machine are often seen as a threat to job security. As manufacturers develop their collaboration strategy, they must account for workforce attitudes, assuring people that machines are friends, not foes, and that they can help them work more efficiently and focus on more interesting, even safer, tasks.

  • Challenge the talent strategy comfort zone. Manufacturers must create both a profile of their human capital today and a strategy to replenish the talent pipeline tomorrow. This will mean developing training programs that emphasize data analysis and management skills that organizations need to make sense of the rafts of data coming from machine sensors across the manufacturing lifecycle.


The separation between leaders and laggards will grow steadily over time. Five, 10 or 20 years from now, followers will find themselves playing a game of catch-up that is next to impossible to win. Leaders, on the other hand, will have analyzed and transformed their value chain, allowing them to reap the profitable outcomes of human-machine interaction.

The convergence of humans and intelligent machines might seem straight out of science fiction, but it is the new reality in manufacturing—one of the biggest transformative changes the sector has seen since the Industrial Revolution.


Accenture interviewed 512 respondents across all major industrial countries in North America, Western Europe and Asia. Our sample included factory directors, engineering and R&D heads, operations and HR managers, and C-suite executives. More than half were from the industrial equipment industry, with the rest split between automotive and construction equipment. All respondents were involved in setting their company’s strategy for the Connected Industrial Workforce. The interviews were conducted online in December 2015.

1. Ray Shanks, Sunit Sinha and Robert J. Thomas, Judgment calls: Preparing leaders to thrive in the age of intelligent machines, 2016

2. Automation World, Building a Connected Industrial Workforce, July 20, 2016, retrieved on August 23 at

3. Carnegie Mellon University, The Robot Hall of Fame®, Unimate,

4. Accenture, Machine Dreams: Making the most of the Connected Industrial Workforce, 2016

5. Peggy Hollinger, Meet the cobots: humans and robots together on the factory floor, May 5, 2016, retrieved on July 14, 2016 at

6. Christopher Alessi, Germany develops ‘smart factories’ to keep an edge, October 27, 2014, retrieved on July 14, 2016 at

7. Keiko Ujikane, Katsuyo Kuwako and Jodi Schneider, Tightening workforce could compel healthy Japanese to toil to 80, July 11, 2016, retrieved on July 14, 2016 at

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Rene Wiedemann

Rene Wiedemann

is a managing director leading Accenture’s Industrial Products practice in Switzerland.

Christian von der Gruen

Christian von der Gruen

is a senior manager in Accenture’s Management Consulting practice and is based in Zurich.

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