“We’re at a stage where the human element needs to go through a major transformation.”

Industry 4.0, Smart Manufacturing, the digital transformation is a topical subject for industrials. Julie Fraser, expert in manufacturing systems, shares her vision.


With 30 years of passion and experience as a manufacturing systems industry advisor and researcher, Julie Fraser is Founder and Principal of Iyno Advisors Inc.

She has been a member of MESA for 25 years, is leading MESA’s Smart Manufacturing Research and Community and is former Outreach Director and was the first Chairman of the MESA Metrics Working Group.

At Helium we want to put human at heart of manufacturing with Smart manufacturing technologies, do you think manufacturing people are concerned?

I think, certainly, the people who are in manufacturing now are happy to think that they will still have a role. Because as you know, over the years, many automation projects were justified based on headcount reduction. So, often when people hear about the new technologies coming, they’re very fearful.

The reality is, most production facilities are going to need to upskill their people. They are not going to let them go, they’re going to upskill them. They need to be able to go beyond the sort of traditional operator role:  doing the same task over and over. Yes, the automation will do those tasks. They’re going to now really be in more of a supervisory role for the most part.

Again, every industry is different; if you take an industry like pharmaceuticals, they’ve got a long road to get away from paper. As long as you have paper, you have people! And, there are also industries like CNC machine shops where skilled operators are essential; and the skillset just grows. There are, also, some simpler products, where the lines will be increasingly automated. No question. So, the role of the people, in that case, becomes strategic. From the actual operator’s perspective, they’re going to be covering more ground, understanding a greater piece of the overall process than they did in the past. So again, that’s an upskilling required… that’s a knowledge-based required that a lot of people don’t have.

“Most production facilities are going to need to upskill their people.”

But the other thing that to me is really fascinating about this, is many of the companies are not just trying to automate – they’re trying to find a new way to do business. And in that context, there’s a whole new group of people required, who are not just operational engineering focused but having the ability to think outside the box. The traditional ways of improving manufacturing businesses are around very small incremental change – think of a Kaizen approach. And that will still be needed, but there’s another layer needed of more dramatic, radical, strategic thinking. And I think all of us have met those innovators, those people who walk into a manufacturing company and say: “We could be doing this a whole different way. And not just the production. We could be formulating our supply chain differently, we could be envisioning the value we deliver differently, we could be talking with our customers differently and have a different relationship.” All of those aspects have been coming along, over the years, in small pockets. But I think we’re at a stage where the human element needs to go through a major transformation.

How can we go through this step?

With education; but it’s not the traditional basic education, it’s an education in how to think. And the good news is, I do think that the younger generations in many cases have had better training at that. And they are digital natives!

Part of the challenge that I’m seeing at this moment is that my generation, the older people, think they didn’t necessarily have to respect young people. Now, respect really has to be reciprocal. For this vision to come to reality, we need those young people who don’t see the digital world as something foreign and scary but just a natural “why don’t we do it this way?” We need to take those “why don’t we do it this way?” questions and work them into the business, work them into our vision for ourselves. When you get someone like that, who is excited and has a vision, very often they are hobbled by the current infrastructure, both the IT infrastructure and in some cases the actual equipment; and by the management, and the management’s understanding of what’s possible and what they should be investing. I still find in a lot of companies, it’s easier to invest in a new machine than it is to buy the software to run all the machines you’ve already bought much more efficiently. That’s still just a predominant mindset in a lot of companies and I think that will change over time, but again until the younger people start having a little more input. So, from my perspective, on the one hand, there are lots of challenges, there’s a lot to do but I’m very very optimistic.

More specifically what does an MES solution bring to people?

Well, the good news is, from my perspective MES has always been – I hate to use the term but – sort of the control system for human beings. It’s what allows human beings to be as consistent as the equipment. Which, you know, we’re not… as human beings that’s not our natural way. We’re not naturally consistent. But, if you’ve got a system that’s guiding through what you need to do, can provide you information if you need it and, in many cases, it can sort of make sure that you know if something is not happening the way it’s supposed to happen. It empowers people in a way. Now, initially, there’s usually a lot of fear: “ok I don’t know how to use this.”  I think that’s starting to change because almost everyone now needs to use a phone. Even the older people, most of them have a smartphone or at least a mobile phone, so people are starting to get less afraid. But nonetheless there’s still the concern of “is this going to be watching over me, so I can’t…”. And, to some degree, it does. But, on the other hand, most of the people I know who work in manufacturing are very proud. They want to do a good job, they want their company and their plant to be successful. Once they start to see a bigger picture, which is what the software allows them to do is actually to see across the plant. If you stand at your workstation all day, you can’t see across the plant, even if you wander around. You really can’t tell! And I think it can be surprising once people start to use their system, typically they ask for more functionality. They want it to do more, they get excited. It’s like “oh, now I can do this better and I can…” and a lot of people are part of a continuous improvement project, so they also realize “oh this helped me do that. So now my process is better, I understand it better.” Then they start to think of the next thing and the next thing. The improvements accelerate and often at a bigger scale.

“Most of the people I know who work in manufacturing are very proud [of their jobs]”

If you can see the data across the plant as opposed to just at your workstation it starts also to give people better, bigger, more holistic ideas. The people that you meet who have been through that transition from being fearful to being excited, you don’t forget those conversations: it really makes people feel even more proud. They have the data to show how they are improving their work area all the time.

What are the success-keys of such a transition?

Well, I hinted at one of them before, around the education. One thing is for everybody, up and down, to have that common understanding: to know and have some shared vision, some shared understanding “This is what we’re going to do”. And that in some ways is the very most difficult part:  getting past each person’s fears and filters can be a really challenging exercise. But the most successful projects I’ve seen, from very early on, include not just a small core team but also, the operators, the maintenance people, the schedulers, and of course the supervisors and the people from the rest of the business too, because they get impacted. That’s one of the things that people often miss, they tend to just sort of confine it to the plant operations, but the impacts are so deep into the company. But in fact, it has an impact all the way through the company. So, you know, it’s important to have some executive views but also just other departments. The MES affects all of them.

Another thing that I have found to be important is to have a very strong structured approach. A lot of people start with the ISA95 model because it gives you a conceptual framework for what data needs to kind of flow where. And the other thing, so sort of having a strong framework from a model perspective but also from a project perspective. MES can do so many things! So, it’s really important to start it with “okay, this is phase 1. If we don’t do this much, we’re not going to get enough benefit to show and to actually, you know, get the ROI to move forward. Always keeping away from scope creep is super important. But it’s perhaps even more important to do the planning, so that each phase, when you complete it, you have something to point to and say: “we accomplished this, this is how it benefits the company. This is how we’ve gotten a return on the investment we made.” And then, at each step, doing the same thing over and over.

One of the other important things that I’ve seen so many times is adequate resourcing from the human side. Most companies do a better job scoping out how many dollars or how much money they made or can spend than they do scoping out how many people and which people are needed. And the project team needs to be the best people. That often doesn’t happen because everybody wants the best people. It has to be really a strategic decision, that we’re going to move this person into this team. Maybe you’ll need a number of full-time people and some other people can be part-time if they need to be. But, if you don’t have that core team dedicated to it, that can also be really disastrous. Because there are so many interdependencies, interconnections… You need a cross-disciplinary team, of the very best and brightest people to make it sync.

Success keys of MES projects:

  • an organizational commitment 
  • a cross-disciplinary team, of the best people
  • a shared vision
  • Education
  • a very strong structured approach in phases
  • Expert consultants

What is the definition for “best people” ?

They tend to be the people who are the most influential, the people who others will listen to. That’s a key characteristic. Because those people on the team need to be the salespeople for the whole project, through the whole company. But you also need a mix, you need at least a couple of those people who have the vision, the understanding of the company. But you also need some people who are really up on every technology. Because these projects take a long time, if all you know is what you were working with last year, by the time you implement the project you may not be able to incorporate the latest technology. So, you need that forward technology view on the team.

There’s a quality to the people on these project teams that they need to be both willing to state what they believe to be true and they need to be able to listen to what everyone else thinks. And, how do you come to an agreement, and how do you grab the best from each person on the team? They’re not necessarily the people who everyone thinks of as being good team players/Bbecause sometimes the team players just go along with it, and you can’t afford very many of those. You need people who will say “no, this is it! This is what I think, from my perspective, is important.” You have to get everybody’s important issues on the table. So, it has to be people who are willing to speak up, who are comfortable in what they know on their part of the picture and, at the same time, who have an open mind enough to be able to see how their part of the picture fits, or conflicts, with some other parts of the picture. And really, usually, there are some very tough conversations, because not everybody’s going to get everything they need. When you look to the phasing of it,when you get to the end game, maybe everybody gets what they want, or maybe not. But, you know, there are decision points all along the way, and it’s rare that you get consensus.

Team players who can raise the bar?

Yes, that’s a very good way to put it. Team players who can raise the bar, I like that phrase. You don’t need a whole team of people who have great interpersonal skills, but you need enough of them on the team to be able to navigate through all of them. And certainly, the leaders, or the leader, of the team, depending on how your structure it, very much need that capability.

What is the very first step of an MES project?

The first thing is someone who’s got the capability to set aside both human resources and financial resources, to say: “We’re going to have this MES initiative. And, I’m picking a few of the best people, with various perspectives, to start it.”

“Have the commitment, […] dedicate […] the best team resources to it.”

And then from there, they can build their own team. Different companies work different ways after that, but I think sort of creating the commitment. This is now an initiative, we have a commitment to it and now that we have the commitment, we’re going to dedicate these human resources and the best team resources to it. So yeah, you’ve got to get your team as a starting point and begin to get those perspectives. Even before you’re all educated you can start getting each other’s perspectives on it. But the education early helps so much, because a lot of times, people go through the education program and they say “gee, I wish I’d done that 2 years ago.”

 So, you need education, and honestly, I’m a big believer in consultants. I actually do think the most successful projects I’ve seen have been based on some kind of independent education but led by experience consultants. If you don’t have multiple experiences with MES, you’re going to get stuck thinking that the one project you ever saw is the way to do it. And, there are a lot of ways to do it.Eeach company is different. If you don’t really match up the approach with the culture of the company, as well as of course, where are they technically, what experience do they already have? How risk-averse are they, how cost-sensitive are they, how is progress measured? How much patience does the management have to get a first result?

So, you need the people who deeply understand the culture of that company, and you need the external consultants who’ve seen a lot of different MES situations to be able to guide through the whole process.