Enabling digital transformation for your frontline workers

Aug 13, 2019 8:38:00 AM . Peter Price, CEO, Webalo

Visit an industrial plant - a mine, power generation plant or manufacturing facility for example - and automation, mechanical and digital, is everywhere. Millions of dollars are invested in machinery, robotics, enterprise and industrial software systems that run and operate a plant. However, chat with the workforce, the frontline workers themselves, and you’ll find that they’re largely disconnected from all of this automation – when they do their job, it's paper, voice or experience-based and rarely digitized.

It’s estimated that less that 10% of the historical IT spend has been invested in frontline workers to date, but that is about to change. The digital transformation of the frontline workforce is the next frontier of enterprise technology investment. It is a top three priority for the majority of industrial companies, as the New York Times made clear in its July 10, 2019 article “You’re Hired” - “…companies see a multi-billion dollar opportunity to get more personal technology in the hands of workers who don’t sit behind a desk.”


So who are these industrial frontline workers? They’re the workers who operate in the extended value chain of goods and materials coming into the plant environment; the plant environment itself and the shipping and distribution part of the value chain – finished product distributed out of the plant. Globally, frontline workers represent 60% of the total workforce--around 2.7 billion workers-- and in industrial companies that percentage is even higher, at around 75% of the total workforce.

IDC estimates the market opportunity for getting more personal technology into the hands of these workers is about 2 trillion dollars. It’s not surprising that the impact of the digital transformation of the frontline workforce will be a game changer for all industrial businesses. This part of the workforce is critical to productivity and efficiency. Frontline workers, enabled with real-time visibility of plant operations, and provided with clear work instructions on their smartphone, tablet, watch or other connected worker device, will enable the plant to be more efficient, operate with greater operational control and compliance, reduce costs and increase overall plant productivity.

Use cases abound: enforcing standard operating procedures and instructions; facilitating production line change over, digitizing maintenance cards, providing real-time notifications and alerts, enabling more efficient production schedule updates, aiding downtime event review, supporting incoming materials scanning, expediting shift change over, displaying real-time or contextualized KPI's (Key Performance Indicators) metrics and dashboards, time stamping KPI's on the production line, applying digital task management , providing supervisor smart checklists - the list goes on and each area of plant operations will want to prioritize their list to meet their own digital transformation goals.

However, critical to the success of your frontline workforce digital transformation project should be how it impacts your broader operational excellence goals. Approaching your project at the individual “app” level may solve a particular business problem, but it will not provide the kind of operational excellence impact that you are looking for to transform your business and meet your operational goals across the plant. A successful frontline workforce digital transformation project should drive and accelerate operational excellence in all of the key areas of your business - the effective management and utilization of materials and resources across the plant; increasing quality, reducing wastage, optimizing the workforce and predicting business trends.

With this in mind, here are three key ideas to guide your frontline workforce digital transformation project.

  1. It’s all about the users.

Chat with your workforce and they’ll tell you that some of their biggest challenges are just about knowing what they need to know, doing what they need to do, seeing what they need to see. With so many systems in the plant environment, it’s hard to get to the parts that are about their particular task at that particular moment. Minutes and hours are wasted by every worker on every shift just trying to navigate through these systems to find what they need. Your project needs to be enabled on a “persona” basis, at the individual user level. In solving these frontline worker use cases, enable them around a single platform approach where the users no longer need to log into multiple systems to try and find what they want. Instead, just help them see what they need to see to enable them to get their particular job done – one new platform removes their need to log in and find their way through multiple systems – a single-pane-of-glass to all of the plant systems, personalized for the individual user, will drive all of your operational excellence goals.

  1. Use the data.

It’s most likely that your plant environment has multiple/different enterprise and industrial systems that operate and manage the plant: the manufacturing execution system, the ERP system, the whole end-to-end value chain of the manufacturing processes and all of the systems that run them. These are your data sources – use them! A collection of disconnected apps just provides more confusion and complexity for the workforce. A stand-alone app guiding a particular workflow is of no value if you have to separately trigger its action and then when completed, enter the results in another system to complete the transaction or visualize the results. End-to-end integration is key – a seamless experience between the user, their device and the multiple back-end systems in the plant, so that the user only experiences the value of the app’s assistance in completing their task without the burden of one task creating multiple, separate tasks for them to complete.

  1. Enable the plant.

Driving operational excellence cannot be done on a traditional weeks, months and years “corporate project” basis. Time is critical. Complex or simple, you need to enable your frontline workforce teams, in all areas of plant operations, to generate their own use cases. A platform approach, where IT can manage the core infrastructure in a secure, scalable and available manner, and plant operations can generate their own frontline workforce digital use cases, at the plant level, in hours and days, is critical to create engagement and drive operational excellence objectives.

The bottom line

Digital transformation is not easy. Gartner estimates that over 80% of digital transformation projects fail, not because of technology, but because of people.  Enabling your frontline workforce with a platform that can generate persona-based apps overcomes that statistic by providing task workers with infrastructure that is flexible; that adapts to their current and future needs; and that truly informs, empowers, and enables them during the course of their day.

The results? Savings in time, in materials, increased efficiency and streamlined processes. It is your first step in your digital transformation journey.