Opinion: How digitally empowering manufacturing workers can be thought leaders

In a highly competitive world, training and collaboration among employees from different departments could spell the difference between failure and success
Opinion: How digitally empowering manufacturing workers can be thought leaders
By Keith Fenner
Mon 26 Feb 2018 02:29 PM

Human history is one of ceaseless discovery. As a species, we invent, refine and progress. We have arrived, then, at the beginning of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a merging of the physical and digital worlds where technology has become an inextricable extension of ourselves. Not only can it take mundane, manual tasks off our hands, it can, in its own way, invent, refine and progress.

Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch in September 2008, businesses – habit forming by nature – have formed new habits. But, somewhat paradoxically, these new habits have revolved around eradicating habit altogether in a digital transformation that has the power to engage customers, empower employees, optimise operations and refine business models. That is what digital transformation does: it dismisses old habits and assumptions. Systems create data in the intelligent cloud, which feeds systems, which create data. And on and on. Progress.

Onward and upward

Nowhere is that truer than in the manufacturing sector, one of the Gulf’s most prevalent industries. Steel, chemicals, engineering, ship-building, aerospace, plastics, electrical goods, clothing, food processing, furniture, microprocessors, semiconductors and fibre optics – they all have a long history in the region. While oil prices may be in recovery, governments in the region have, with their various economic diversification programmes, already demonstrated a clear understanding that their futures lay elsewhere.

The private sector is playing an increasing role, of course, and manufacturing stands out in this cohort. The manufacturing sector is now Dubai’s third largest, and the emirate’s Department of Economic Development (DED) expects around $19m to be spent on R&D by manufacturing companies as the sector expands from a current value of $11.2bn to $16.1bn by 2030.

Over the past decade, then, GCC manufacturing companies have been a prime case study for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), advanced analytics, robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT) are blurring the lines between machinery and software. Employees, whether on the factory floor, in the sales office or out in the field, have been empowered by these developments.

Improved worker visibility, customer engagement, collaboration, productivity and agility in day-to-day operations have allowed every employee to act as a thought leader in their field. This aggregated innovation will separate the winners from the losers across a competitive sector in the throes of hyper-growth.

Equip your foot soldiers

There is a reason why employee empowerment is one of the four pillars of digital transformation. It is not marketing nor is it appeasement. Employees are the foot soldiers of any business; their everyday interaction with customers, suppliers, and partners make them the standard-bearers of your brand – so they need to be equipped for that responsibility.

The challenge for boardrooms is to design a digitisation programme to improve worker visibility across production and customer engagement, to enhance collaboration between locations and across teams, and build agility into everyday operations. This will give workers a 360-degree view across sales, supply chain and production processes, and provide access to company-wide data and interactive visualisations.

If successful, companies will have equipped their teams to do everything from answering customer questions to identifying inefficiencies in the production process.

The company-wide view also acts as cross-training, leading to employees with holistic knowledge of the business – again, that’s creating a new generation of thought leaders.

Collaboration tools can reinforce this. For example, a field technician can advise on the re-engineering of a product to lower costs and improve performance, or team up with experts from around the world – remotely, or through virtual and mixed reality – to quickly solve complex problems.

A wardrobe of hats

With the right technology mix, employees not only receive rich, visual, on-the-job training but also stave off the jaded stagnation associated with years of service. Daily innovation and collaboration adds value across the supply chain, sales and production.

Agility – the ability to respond quickly to market changes – should follow naturally from a newly inspired workforce. Smart mobile solutions tied in to smart CRM and ERP systems, for instance, allow for dynamic role-switching: a technician in the field could generate new leads for a sales team or identify competitors, while a sales rep could provide customer service by accessing machine learning-assisted troubleshooting steps.

This is what the empowered employee looks like in a competitive world: wearing different hats, as business opportunities and requirements demand; working from anywhere; conferring with colleagues across oceans; and advising senior management on efficiency, quality and cost. Refinement breeds progress. Welcome to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Dynamics 365 in action


One of the recent innovations pioneered by Siemens is the eHighway, an electrified freight transport system that combines the efficiency of electric railroads with the flexibility of long-haul trucks. Technicians servicing the trucks used a mixed-reality solution based on Microsoft HoloLens and Dynamics 365 for field service.

Technicians are now able to complete maintenance tasks much faster and more accurately, minimise human error, and immediately record service reports in Dynamics 365 for field servicing.


The company has a stated mission to make the full water cycle more efficient in order to deliver clean water to more people. That means offering the most efficient energy-saving pumps possible, managing wastewater and monitoring distribution networks to detect leaks and pump failures.

Grundfos used Microsoft Azure, the Azure IoT Suite, and Dynamics 365 to create a remote monitoring and maintenance solution. This resulted in a more efficient and flexible command and control system to reduce maintenance time and costs – and deliver a better product.

Keith Fenner, Dynamics 365 Group Business Director, Microsoft Middle East & Africa

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