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Considering the human factor within the digitalization of manufacturing

Jan. 27, 2023
Solutions must be simple enough for employees to embrace and implement quickly.

Howard Huffman, president/founder, Huffman Engineering, Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA)

The digitalization of manufacturing is upon us and most companies who don’t embrace it will be at a significant disadvantage in the future.  But this concept is about more than just embracing cool technology.

Smart factories require smart people

As digitalization, automation and data-sourcing become the norm, companies are wise to proceed both cautiously and fast. Continuously developing technologies can enable manufacturers to produce data and merge that data into a single source of truth. Companies on the front end of gathering that data will be well-served to position themselves for growth.

But while the technology can allow lightening-speed insights, the need for a human element is not lost. Data is truly only data until it’s aggregated, studied and analyzed, then turned into actionable information. It’s not enough to have access to data—that’s the easy part. Smart industry and digitalization require smart people. 

Systematic & consistent analysis

Predictive modeling of data is endless. Data can tell you almost anything you want to hear, but true smart manufacturing will happen when the data is correlated in a systematic and consistent way. You have to remember that digital transformation is ultimately transforming the way people do their jobs.

That transformation will be successful when a couple things are at play:

1. The solution is simple enough for employees to embrace and implement quickly.

2. You bring your people along early, let them have input, provide training and communicate often.

As with any transformation, fundamental components must be embraced to do it well. Agility in any industry is the key, as technology changes at warp speed. Those with knowledge and access to that technology who can apply a higher level of thinking to the process will reap the true benefits of a digital transformation.

On a manufacturing plant floor, maintaining production is the most important goal. That means the introduction of digital processes has to supplement that one key goal. Often there is just one important question to answer: “What are we trying to accomplish here?” The answers may vary: More efficiency and faster production? Insight into how many employees we need on the floor during a shift? How can we avoid this hiccup in the production process?  Without considering the motivation,  you are transforming to say you’ve transformed...buying new technology to say you have it.

Technology cannot replace human analytical thought. It should be viewed as a tool in the toolkit to gain automated information and ultimately improve from your processes. Then time needs to be devoted to studying that insight to make wise decisions and answer the original questions moving forward.


The ability to plan ahead and then turn on a dime when uncontrollable circumstances are presented will be the difference between true digital transformation with forward-thinking companies and those who may be left behind.

Smart decisions must be implemented well, in sequence and rapidly. Simply making decisions using leading-edge technology may mean your manufacturing line looks cool, but it can be like buying a robot and letting it sit on the floor instead of incorporating it into your production process.

It’s not effective to simply own the robot. The robot becomes effective when it is incorporated into your production line, working for you, gaining efficiency. That doesn’t mean you don’t buy the robot. It just means you need to take the time to understand what the robot is capable of and then put it to work in the very best way you can.

Digitalization is the same way. Embrace the new wave, set your company up for success by investing in new technology to help you gain automated insight into your business practices. Then devote time and effort into educating and training employees on the new process. Take time to contemplate the insight you have gained.

Digital transformation is here to stay. Remember one thing that is key: all transformation is iterative. It takes time, patience, agility and frequent adjustments to the plan to make it a success. Smart factories will be realized when smart people are making good decisions from accurate information and dedicating the time to considering the data in a thoughtful and analytical way.

Want more 2023 forecasting? Our annual Crystal Ball Report is now live right here! 

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