Bridging the Digital Worker Gap

Sep 7, 2022 8:15:00 AM . Julia Walsh

When we hear the terms “Industry 4.0” and “digitalization,” we imagine fully automated, lifeless factories churning out products in a lights-out kind of manufacturing environment. The reality, however, is far from that image. The digital transformation of any enterprise is more like a journey than a step change, and achieving such a transformation is only possible through the empowerment of an organization’s number one resource: its workers.

Gartner predicts that by 2025, 70% of all IT investments will be focused on frontline workers, and rightly so: frontline workers contribute to all parts of an organization and have the power to drastically improve its performance, provided they are given the right digital tools.

Top leaders within manufacturing organizations need to understand that in order to create more digital operations, they and their workforces will need to embark on a digital journey. Creating a digital workforce should be the most important deliverable of the first phase of their digital journey. A digital workforce should not be confused with a highly futuristic, super-augmented workforce equipped with multiple wearables and robotic exoskeletons, performing tasks with superhuman strength and speed.

Even though wearables and exoskeletons are already in use today, at the initial level of the digital journey a digital worker needs to be equipped with mobile technology that enables them to better perform assigned tasks and make better decisions. As digitization continues, a workforce’s performance improves, as does the overall effectiveness of the entire manufacturing and value creation process.      

Understanding the Digital Worker Gap:

To discover the gaps within a given manufacturing operation that digital workers could fill, the status quo needs to be analyzed and the following questions need to be asked:

  • How are work instructions passed to our workers?
  • Do our workers collect data from processes, and does this data need to be recorded on paper-based forms or entered into workstation spreadsheets?
  • Do our workers use company mobile devices to execute any tasks, or do they use their own?
  • When a breakdown or quality error is detected, how long does it take our workers to report and act upon it??
  • To what extent does the enterprise IT infrastructure utilize shop floor data? And do our workers have a digital platform where they can access enterprise information to do their jobs better?
  • How does worker training, qualification, and deployment happen currently, and is any of this done digitally?
  • Does process execution still rely on the experience and tribal knowledge of our shop floor workers?

In companies where there is a major gap between status quo and a digitally empowered workforce, the answers to the questions posed above will likely reflect largely paper-based operations. Workflows and work instructions are passed down on printed sheets, the workers do not use mobile devices for data collection or task execution, and when an incident is reported it takes a day or two to be analyzed and acted upon. Furthermore, training is an off-the-job activity, and there is a heavy reliance on experienced workers to get things done in the right way. IT applications exist, but they operate in silos and there is no single source of truth when it comes to manufacturing data.

Leaders reading this post need to compare their answers with the example shared above and understand that the journey towards a more digital workforce begins with digitizing the manufacturing process in its entirety. This happens when operations are made paperless; the workforce is empowered by mobile applications that help them execute tasks, train, and share knowledge; and the data collected from the shop floor is shared with an integrated enterprise IT infrastructure. 


Figure 1: Source- Webalo Inc.

Bridging the Gap:

In order to bridge the gap between status quo and a digitally enabled workforce, a platform approach is recommended. Webalo is one such platform that helps digitize the frontline workforce and augments their abilities so they deliver better results. As the platform further deploys and connects the entire process internally, connecting the process to the enterprise, the true benefits of digital transformation start to reveal themselves.

At the very beginning of the journey, the platform digitizes all paper-based forms and plant activities, be they job dockets, work instructions, or SOPs. When this happens, not only does the tribal knowledge of the experienced workers get captured, the whole operation becomes more dynamic and activities get executed with proper transactional data capture and clarity. Next comes the digitization of workflows and events, which allows workers to view and understand how their input helps the improvement of overall process execution.  It also equips them with the ability to report events in real-time and take action as assigned through the platform or in collaboration with cross-functional stakeholders.

In the final leg of the digital journey comes the integration of the shop floor with the top floor, the creation of a fully connected organizational network of applications that digitizes all processes and executes them in the most optimal fashion. What makes Webalo’s value proposition and digital journey paradigm interesting is that it uses mobility as a core deliverable. Workers are empowered to use their mobile devices to create applications that do everything, from data capture to data analysis. This is what creates  a truly digital worker.

A mobile worker who is able to perform their tasks through the device in the palm of their hand– whether capturing data over IoT or through the device camera or by simply keying it in–has an enormously elevated ability to do more with the limited amount of time in a given work day or shift. Being digital is of no use if the worker is tied to a workstation to perform every single task, whether it be  downloading a work instruction or a job card, reporting a breakdown, or simply keying in the shift pass-down. Unless the platform deployed to digitize an operation provides workers with the ability to use mobile devices, it is not a true digital solution, and it will not plug the gaps that currently exist from a digitization perspective.     

Digital Worker 2.0:

Deloitte explains that by 2026, 37% of the workforce in the U.S. will be between the ages of 65 and 69, and wearables will become increasingly important to further augment work for the aging workforce. This is exemplified by the fact that in 2022 alone, the global market for wearables will grow 41% and exceed 60 billion U.S. dollars.

Companies will invest more in technologies that can augment their workers’ sensory and physical capabilities to help them perform better. This is what the future of the workforce looks like. The use of smart goggles, wearables, exoskeletons, and voice-controlled wearables will find their way into manufacturing tasks to not only improve worker results but also to keep them safe while at work.

We wish to highlight this phenomenon of a digitally enabled worker transforming into a sort of “super worker” through AI, AR/VR, IoT, robotics, and Digital Worker 2.0.

A word of caution, though. Equipping workers with AR and VR technologies without providing them the ability to perform their basic tasks digitally will only prove detrimental to organizations. We encourage companies to follow the digital journey described above and begin with the basics (digitizing tasks and forms and empowering workers to go mobile) before pursuing the transformation towards Digital Worker 2.0.

Digitize right, choose Webalo!