Technology bridges the manufacturing labour gap in 3 ways

November 11, 2022 12:34
Photo: Reuters

Since the 1980s, Hong Kong's manufacturing industry has had to move to neighbouring regions with lower operation costs, especially the Greater Bay Area. Statistics from a report by the Chinese Manufacturers' Association of Hong Kong and Lingnan University Hong Kong, highlighted that between 2014 and 2018 the number of Hong Kong-based manufacturing companies with footprints in mainland China - such as the cities in the Greater Bay Area, increased from 20,006 to 21,345. The total number of employees in mainland China rose from 2.57 million to approx. 2.71 million. These numbers indicate a continuous growth in the manufacturing sector.

Despite this growth, in the last two years there has been a significant shortage of manufacturing workers primarily caused by the impacts of the pandemic. During the pandemic, city-wide lockdowns and quarantined workers were an inescapable reality. This has resulted in significant labour shortages and frequent changes in factory operations. Further, these changes made it essential for manufacturing workers to familiarize themselves quickly with new processes. The often tedious and repetitive shop floor tasks have undoubtedly left manufacturing workers burnt out enough to quit their jobs or look for new opportunities.

In addition, the demands and makeup of the new workforce has changed. Today’s young workforce is digital-savvy and expects their employers to be as well. Given a choice between multiple job offers, 91% of Gen Z employees say that the digital technologies offered by an employer would be an essential factor in their decision.

Technology can help manufacturers bridge critical gaps and empower their workers with new tools and techniques. Manufacturing Execution System (MES) is one such technology that is changing manufacturers' productivity game. It can help manufacturers address labour shortage intelligently with faster, easier ways to onboard new workers, collect and share operational data, and monitor processes and performance to make critical adjustments that improve productivity. More importantly, it can help manufacturers keep up with the needs and demands of a new workforce.

Speed up Employee Onboarding

To meet production demands, manufacturers need staffing levels to remain stable and optimized at all times. MES helps manufacturing businesses provide a seamless virtual onboarding tool for new employees, providing training documentation and videos, work instructions and drawings, process steps, and on-demand assistance through an easy-to-use touch-screen interface.

As workers advance through onboarding and training, MES can also manage their skills and capabilities to let businesses know when workers are ready to run a machine or can be scheduled on specific work cells.

Collect and Share Data Efficiently

Manufacturing workers deal with data all the time. However, much of it is handled through manual methods like tracking down part numbers, images, and drawings, making calculations, or writing information down on paper. These create unnecessary complexity for new workers and increase the risk of errors and delays.

MES streamlines data collection, sharing, and reporting by automating changeovers, part counts, and parts fulfilment, reducing human error and time spent looking for critical information. Automated, accurate, real-time data collection also gives manufacturers continuous visibility into inventory, part availability, and machine performance to better understand what is happening on the shop floor.

Essentially, MES unburdens workers from manual, error-prone data processes that hurt job satisfaction while helping manufacturers make better business decisions to improve operations and reduce overhead and labour.

Improve Processes and Performance

Collecting data on processes helps manufacturers understand the production environment so they can monitor the issues and variables that impact the rest of the production line or even the end customer. The problem is that they rely on physical inspections and quality checks for process monitoring, which is time-consuming and inefficient.

MES automates process monitoring through statistical and quality control methodologies and part quantification. The software can be programmed to stop a machine or turn on an alarm when necessary. Data is collected from each operator to understand their efficiency and experience levels, identify where more training may be required, and reward top-performing workers. Automated process monitoring and performance analytics also allow manufacturers to understand the number of workers and shifts needed to meet production demand.

MES is Today’s Answer to Manufacturing Labour Challenges

The volatility of the manufacturing labour market may not let up anytime soon, but it doesn’t have to derail the business. MES technology provides a path forward, offering digital tools and information to bring on new workers swiftly and successfully and make more efficient and productive use of the existing workforce. Better data around processes and performance improves day-to-day operations on the shop floor and uncovers specific labour needs. MES can even help reduce labour footprint by turning over the most repetitive and inefficient tasks to automated technology solutions.

The transition to Industry 4.0 and smart factory technology is already underway. MES can help factory operators get there with less disruption and more confidence.

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Regional Vice President, Asia at Epicor Software