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UK focus: Closing the digital skills gap

Learning and development, combined with an open-minded approach to disruptive technologies, will usher in a new era of smart manufacturing argues Paul Smith, Executive Vice President & General Manager, UK & Ireland at Salesforce.

Learning and development, combined with an open-minded approach to disruptive technologies, will usher in a new era of smart manufacturing argues Paul Smith, Executive Vice President & General Manager, UK & Ireland at Salesforce.

Across the UK, the manufacturing sector is in transition. Given the current geopolitical events surrounding the UK economy, it’s an uncertain time. Not least within the manufacturing sector which is under immense pressure, having recently fallen in the global ranks when it comes to total output

But in times of high-pressure, often comes the best innovation. An open-mindedness to disrupt. Today, new technologies such as AI, blockchain, IoT and 3D printing are totally upending traditional business models and working practices. Transforming the operations, processes, and energy footprint of factories, as well as the management of supply chains. A new era of smart manufacturing is underway.

But technology is only half the story. Access to skilled workers is set to become one of the most critical factors that sets successful companies apart from failing ones. In an increasingly data-driven future, The Coalition for a Digital Economy predicts that the UK could see a shortfall of 800,000 digital workers by 2020.

And so to succeed, manufacturers need digital skills and mindsets within the business. For example, people who are familiar with collecting, consolidating and analysing the huge volume of data being generated 24/7 by factory floor machines and enterprise systems. It needs people who are comfortable with technology and disruption.

So how do we ensure that as manufacturing businesses evolve from being producers of products to providers of services, employees are equipped with the right skills? And what are the opportunities for employees to reskill in the sector?

Read the latest issue of Manufacturing Global here

An era of lifelong learning

Gone are the days when education finished at the school gate. In fact, according to our own commissioned research here at Salesforce, over half of UK workers believe that lifelong digital learning is essential to their career prospects. Three-quarters believe coding and data analytics skills, for example, have a shelf-life of less than five years making continual retraining essential. 

But here’s the wake-up call. Over half of workers are looking to employers to help them reskill. That means it’s essential manufacturers step up and collaborate with partners to provide employees with the skills they will need.

That’s where Trailhead can support - our own free online learning platform which helps people gain the skills that they need for jobs in the digital economy. It empowers everyone to learn in-demand technology skills for free online. For manufacturing, this could include data management or app development - digital skills aligned to the future of the industry.

Whether it’s adapting to working effectively alongside AI and automation or learning to build the mobile-first apps customers now expect, the Fourth Industrial Revolution demands a transformation in skills as well as technology.

Using tech to create opportunities

While technology is the biggest enabler of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, people are the largest driver. Smart manufacturing will create new and different types of jobs in fields such as data analytics as well as the need for quality control and technology maintenance. 

Already, forward-thinking manufacturers are using technology to create new “direct to consumer” business models with a focus on customer service to deliver a differentiated customer experience.

It’s no longer enough for manufacturers to simply make a product. Internet of things (IoT) technology that collects and transmits data means they’re empowered - and increasingly, expected - to proactively maintain that product across its lifecycle.

Jet engine makers now get data on those engines before, during and after every flight - and can use that data to optimise performance and spot and preemptively solve issues. Manufacturers are now offering services to customers, not just products. In reality, jet engine manufacturers are in the business of selling engine uptime today, not the engines themselves. 

This focus on customer service is one of the fundamental shifts for the sector. The main advantage of switching to a service-led approach is that it gives manufactures the ability to have longer-lasting, more meaningful relationships beyond production. As manufacturers find new channels to interact with customers and add value beyond the product they will begin to build credibility, trust and advocacy.

Manufacturing businesses often have complex physical operations that can’t be easily modified to meet changing customer needs. This means scaling up to fulfill new orders which can be both expensive and time consuming without the visibility that allows them to predict demand. Poor planning has a flow-on effect for sales and account management teams, who are on the frontline of managing customer expectations. With intelligent forecasting, Salesforce Manufacturing Cloud enables accurate future sales predictions, breaking down the silos between front and back office and empowering sales, manufacturing and operations to align.

What does the future hold?

Many forward-thinking manufacturers are already embracing the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution; but that comes with its inherent challenges. As manufacturing organisations become providers of services rather than makers of products, they need to digitise and transform culturally. These processes take an investment of time and resource.

Moreover, they need a workforce with the right skills to carry out this transformation. With workers looking to employers to help them reskill, its essential manufacturers realise that there is a responsibility which sits with them - to prepare employees for a changing workplace and the new opportunities that brings.