Shaping the future of manufacturing powered by next-gen workforce

by LIM WEI CHUN

FOR manufacturers, times have changed. While we remain “adapters at heart”, displaying ingenuity in a pandemic — from navigating production challenges to switching gears through the manufacture of critical items for humanitarian needs to developing new solutions.

“Volatility” continues to be a watchword among industry leaders and the supply-chain community. As we adjust to the next normal, senior executives are hard-pressed to address the longer-term question: How will manufacturing, its supply chains and the workforce look post Covid-19 with the doubling down of recovery efforts and building capabilities to deal with future demands or crises?

Post-Covid expectations validate the concept of ‘connected factories’.

The pandemic has created a community of engineering and operations leaders who are now armed with a greater understanding of modern enterprise solutions, collaboration tools and cloud-based capabilities. These informed change agents are poised to drive the continuous application of disruptive technologies which in turn, enhances production systems and the manufacturing value chain.

Creating a quantum leap in productivity and efficiency — superior customer, supplier and employee experiences can be delivered in a predictable operating environment where skilled talents work safely alongside machines that can learn, think and act.

Market demand for increased speed, agility and responsiveness forms the impetus for a digitalised ecosystem of “connected factories”. Powered by advanced technologies, Jabil leverages the resulting analytics to strengthen our customer value proposition: Optimised resource and operational costs, and improved customer experience and visibility into the manufacturing process and product quality.

Bringing to life the concept of digital factories, however, requires a balance between technology investment and adoption, and talent growth and readiness.

Leveraging digitalisation and organisational enablers.

According to the World Economic Forum, there is likely a global human talent shortage of 85 million people in the next 10 years and manufacturing could be one of the most severe industries, given it accounts for 22% of global employment. But ironically, jobs in the industrial world, including manufacturing, may be one of the most sought after in the same period.

Closer to home, a survey from the Federal of Malaysian Manufacturers indicated that the manufacturing industry reported an overall shortage of manpower of close to 220,000 workers.

The manufacturing industry has evolved from manual assembly to precision handling, which means that manufacturers need to re-focus on upskilling their workforce in tandem with technology growth.

Having been in this industry for more than two decades, I believe that while the same parallel can be drawn in today’s landscape, it is perhaps the generational changes and demands that make this a moment in the (manufacturing industry) history books.

Today, we are seeing seismic shifts with the convergence of technologies across operations, IT and supply chain. Combined, these forces are shaping the future of manufacturing, one where a predictable data-driven environment is influenced by digitalisation and organisational enablers across these four key areas:

i. Building and strengthening operations with a strong foundation of skilled experts, simplified and standardised processes, and technologies for seamless operations, continuous improvement and operational excellence.

ii. Connecting and managing through an enterprise-wide digital transformation, creating a digital-data-first culture that leverages the power of data.

iii. Control and trace — from materials to process control offering end-to-end visibility across the manufacturing lifecycle.

iv. Predict and prevent using artificial intelligence and machine learning for better insights, actionable data, and systems that learn and further improve decision-making capabilities.

The role of Industry 4.0 (IR 4.0) became even more critical in the backdrop of the pandemic. It was evident that those who invested early in digital adoption were better positioned to tackle evolving market and people dynamics during the pandemic.

Factory digitalisation is now not only necessary, but a business differentiator and a sign of the industry to come. For us manufacturers, it is no longer “business as usual”.

Smart machines and factories, and big data are why manufacturing offers “cool” jobs.

In the 2022 Manufacturing Perception Study from Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, 64% of participants viewed manufacturing jobs as innovative – compared to 39% in 2017. Signalling the promise of IR 4.0, a narrative reset for manufacturers has undoubtedly improved industry appeal with the incoming GenZ and the Millennials.

Connected factories and the digitalisation of entire product lifecycles to the cloud excite new engineers, supply chain planners, data scientists, etc, keen to use the latest tools to create innovative solutions and business processes that align with the company’s core values or purpose. The advent of the Industrial Internet of Things (IoT) enhances our pursuit of data-driven decision-making, a running theme both on and off the shop floor, spanning the same four enablers above.

Programmes like Jabil’s micro-engineering courses — in partnership with industry experts and local universities — are designed to shape a new generation of subject matter experts. Backed by industry-recognised credentials, real application-based and customisable modules, it also allows engineers and technicians to take business-related modules, adding perspectives to how their capabilities influence performance and spearhead business differentiation.

Operating in a cloud-based environment gives rise to a new tribe of connected and collaborative mindsets. At Jabil, we believe the essence of our digital transformation is built and centred on the strongest source of innovation, which is the people working directly with the new technologies and processes.

Implementing connectivity and data visualisation technologies throughout the manufacturing and supply chain for improved end-to-end performance through virtual product integration with 3D modelling, simulations, virtual reality, augmented reality, robotics, customer experience design, etc, ensures talents are productive and successful from the start.

Roles such as analytics translators, data engineers, data scientists, or IoT architects influence strategic planning by leveraging massive data lakes to develop use-case-specific data streams that power and automate workflows, creating new ways of working and striving for agile working methodologies.

Employee-first digitalisation leapfrogs the connected factories movement.

Borrowing from McKinsey, the phrase “triple transformation” around “business, technology and organisation”, means manufacturing is not declining. It is evolving and adapting for the future. There’s more technology, more data and analysis, more creativity, more gamification, more critical thinking and more problem-solving, today than ever before.

We believe that the best way to make our organisation more data-centric and digital is to invest in those who are adaptable, curious and flexible. We look to our existing and future talents, with the logic that digital transformation is changing everyone’s role from the factory floor to our executives.

This marriage of multi-generational talents not only propels the industry forward, but heralds change within the industry itself, making it a destination for “cool” jobs and being the continued change-maker in Malaysia’s employment landscape.


Lim Wei Chun is the regional engineering director of Jabil Penang and a technology specialist focusing on innovation, while nurturing the next generation’s talents. He designed and executed the MicroDegree engineering programmes in partnership with institutions such as Wawasan Open University and Dreamcatcher.