The correct way to launch a technological transition

Blog post
Mikael Wahlström

With potential labour shortages, rising costs, and tightening sustainability goals, the manufacturing, logistics, maintenance, construction, and transport industries, among others, are under pressure to transform. New technologies will help industrial companies remodel their businesses to attract new labour and improve business results. However, a successful transformation demands implementing the technology project through human-centric design using an integrative and functional approach. Sounds complex? Let us explain.

Why is transformation necessary for industrial companies?

Tech-savvy younger generations prefer working for shiny software companies that make games and other consumer apps. In contrast, many industrial companies will struggle to replace retiring workers and recruit new ones to support their growth.    

At the same time, global competition is stronger than ever, and sustainability goals are increasingly demanding. Rising energy prices increase the pressure to operate even more cost-efficiently to stay relevant in the competition.

Workforce, cost-efficiency, sustainability. To overcome these challenges, industrial companies must transform their technology and processes.

Challenges in the adoption of new technology

The technologies required for transforming the industry already exist. Without going too much into detail, we need better connectivity, higher levels of automation, and predictive analytics for quality control, extended product life-cycles, and process optimisation.  

Even with the right technology available, the technology implementation is easily mismanaged. For example, early adopters are happy to use the new tools, but the tools only scale to a small part of the workforce. As a result, old ways of working dominate, and business objectives are not met.     

A technology-first approach typically fails to answer these questions:

  • How is the detailed division of labour between humans and technology organized?
  • How do we ensure that the new technology will produce the desired outcomes? 
  • How will technology change the roles of workers?
  • Where will we find new workers, or how will we train old workers to use the latest technologies?

Therefore, we call the implementation the hard part. A successful transformation requires

  • analysis and understanding of the goals of the work,
  • planning technology and its use simultaneously, and
  • using the desired project outcomes as the guidelines in choosing and designing the technology.

The solution is human-centric design with an integrated and outcome-driven approach

The foundations for a successful technological transformation are laid well before any technology is chosen. Human-centric design in an industrial context is a problem-solving methodology that centers on the needs of the workers. The user experience is carefully analysed and weighed in the design process.  

However, to guarantee a successful technological transition, the human-centric methodology must be complemented with an integrated, outcome-driven approach.

An integrated approach means that the user experience, new ways of working, and new processes are designed together with the technology investment and implementation. In practice, the investment is preceded by a careful analysis of the workers' roles, challenges, phases, and practices. For example, when designing a new factory or production line, the design of machinery, automation, and technology is done in collaboration with the design of human work, training, and user interfaces.

An outcome-driven approach means that the objectives and impacts of the operations are at the heart of the analysis and design. The design of the division of labour between people and machines is guided by current and near-future objectives and identified critical steps and challenges in the work process. This includes identifying conflicting work requirements and uncertainties and how to manage them. Both workers and technology serve the same objective, e.g. safe and efficient electricity production in a power plant. The design process should be based on this objective, not just the psychological needs of the worker or the functionality of the technology alone.    

This does not mean that the worker is cast aside. On the contrary, to maximise the overall outcome, the worker’s role should be designed properly to guarantee their well-being, motivation, and productivity.

A technological transition with an integrated and outcome-driven approach benefits from research expertise

With the methodology outlined, let’s look at how to apply it to a technology transition.

An integrated and outcome-driven approach begins by setting the desired outcomes, for example, production efficiency, quality, employee well-being, safety, energy efficiency, waste reduction, etc.

We then move on to an analysis of human needs. What are the workers currently doing, and what should technology enable them to do better than before so that those new outcomes are met?  VTT’s researchers can study and analyse even non-verbal expertise to make sense of the work process. We can also identify the existing and potential challenges in the process that the new technology aims to solve.

Once we can define these objectives and user-related requirements, we can choose the right technology and user interfaces to meet them and guarantee the best possible outcomes. Psychologically important factors like maintaining control, reducing stress, avoiding frustrations, and good teamwork are built into the new work process.

A research partner helps implement cutting-edge technologies that help reach the desired outcomes

It is good to consider the latest technology in the transformation. For example, new ways to use and collect data can be used to make the work more enjoyable and productive. Data analysis enables a better understanding of stress levels and stress-inducing factors. It can help improve employee well-being and build teams that work better together.  However, there needs to be a clear data policy between the employer and the employees. Employees should maintain control of the data collected of them. As data remains a sensitive topic, a neutral external partner like VTT can operate as an invaluable intermediary. 

Digital twins of factories and other facilities are another technology that supports workers' sense of control, motivation, and collaboration. Collecting data from the production environment and displaying it in virtual and augmented reality applications enables engaging visual monitoring of the factory. Seeing every detail of the operation without physically moving from one location to the next gives a better idea of the big picture and makes communication easier. Workers in the physical space easily collaborate with workers at home or in another factory on the other side of the planet.

Finally, the outcomes of the technological transition should be evaluated at various points of the implementation process. Continuous improvement using data guarantees that the project reaches the outcomes outlined at the start.

At VTT, we believe new technology does not make old workers obsolete, and new tools should not be frustrating, complex, or challenging to use. Could a technological transformation in industry resemble the adoption of a brand new car, which makes reaching the desired destination safer, easier, more comfortable, and more efficient?   

Planning technological transitions side by side with the role of humans in the production process and using the overall outcomes of production as the guiding light for the transitions result in mutual benefits for the employees and the employer. This is the transformation that makes industrial work more attractive, increases industrial competitiveness, and brings about a more sustainable future. It can even change the roles of humans altogether, assisting individual workers in carrying out more diverse tasks in a single day than we can imagine today. 

If you are curious about technological transitions, get in touch with us. We are happy to help you plan and implement a technological investment that helps you overcome existing and future challenges.

 

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Mikael Wahlström
Mikael Wahlström
Research Team Leader

Customers expect personalisation, speed, quality, and low price from products. At the same time all production and logistics need to be as environmentally friendly as possible. For all of this to be profitable, cooperation among many actors, new service business activities, and the utilisation of developed technologies are needed throughout the value chain.