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Making the most of the Connected Industrial Workforce

The robots are here! Enabled by digital technologies and performing basic tasks and key functions. Collaborating with humans in real time.

Science fiction? Far from it. The digital revolution is transforming manufacturing. By bringing machines and artificial intelligence into the workforce, it is enabling an increasingly adaptable, change-ready and responsive working environment: a Connected Industrial Workforce in which workers and machines, working together, reinvent the production and service processes by which manufacturing outcomes are achieved. The concept promises to boost manufacturing productivity exponentially, as well as improve operational efficiency, and enhance safety and risk management. But how prepared are today’s manufacturers to embrace such a workforce? Are they investing in the right capabilities to drive it? Who are the leaders?

More lag than lead
Many manufacturers are not prepared to harness the benefits of digital technologies, despite plans to invest heavily in the technologies needed for a Connected Industrial Workforce. Accenture research tells us 85 percent of manufacturing executives expect human-machine-centric environments to be commonplace in their plants by 2020, and they recognize the benefits such plants promise to deliver. More than 50 percent expect the concept to drive significant productivity improvements, and an overwhelming majority describe it as an essential element of their business strategy.

What leaders do differently
What distinguishes those few companies that are implementing mature solutions with confidence is a clear implementation strategy. Those that believe they are digital leaders plan to increase investments to implement the Connected Industrial Workforce. They also have a clear focus for their investments. Autonomous guided vehicles—mobile robots that move materials around a facility or warehouse—already account for half of such spending, and will continue to account for much of it in future.

Yet few have actually implemented measures designed to realize the potential of this phenomenon. As many as 85 percent still describe themselves as digital followers or laggards, rather than leaders.

Catching up
Those lagging behind threaten their competitiveness. They can, however, take steps to close the gap by:

  • Creating a vision of the full promise of the Connected Industrial Workforce to help show the extent to which seamless human-machine interactions can increase operational efficiency and productivity.

  • Defining the specific benefits that apply to them by harnessing analytics capabilities to improve visibility and drive better insights.

  • Identifying and addressing the barriers such as legacy IT systems, skills gaps and tired security systems.

  • Raising their game in dedicating higher proportions of R&D budget to build a Connected Industrial Workforce.

  • Defining their journey with full support of senior leadership. A governance structure that clearly defines roles, responsibilities and ownership is required.

  • Identifying new job profiles, including cross-functional and interdisciplinary skills.

Overall, the Connected Industrial Workforce opens exciting new possibilities: higher productivity, improved operational efficiency, enhanced safety and risk management, and a chance to mitigate the effects of rising labor costs in previously low-cost locations. It is vital that manufacturers move quickly to build new, robust business models to rise to these challenges.

By Eric Schaeffer, senior managing director, Accenture Industrial