Rebecca Liebert is executive vice president at PPG, a leading global manufacturer of paints, coatings and specialty materials.

If COVID-19 has in any way benefitted manufacturers, it has been in catalyzing the many and varied strategies for accelerating digital transformation.

For years, manufacturers recognized the game-changing potential of interconnectivity, automation, machine learning and real-time data. The pandemic, however, sharpened their focus on investments that can help streamline supply chains, accelerate innovation, increase operational efficiency, improve margins and revolutionize customer experiences. Let’s face it, end-to-end digital, or Industry 4.0, checks every box.

Understanding the need for and achieving true digital transformation are, at best, distant cousins. One common mistake is failing to understand the importance of human capital in successfully leveraging technology to drive positive change. In short, the digitally optimized factory of the future– the holy grail of Industry 4.0 – is possible only with the assistance of a highly trained and engaged workforce, which I call Operator 5.0.

A Higher Purpose

Preparing a workforce for digital transformation begins by training your workforce for the change in skills need to transcend the business. Data, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) can be polarizing forces.

 The dystopian view is that information technology – whether used in the lab and back office or on the shop floor – gradually robs employees of a sense of purpose. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos disagrees. Real-time data, AI and automation will not only lead to a wealthier civilization, he says, “but the quality of work will go up very significantly, and a higher fraction of people will have callings and careers relative to today.”

"Digital transformation for manufacturers begins with an informed, challenged, empowered workforce ."

The latter view aligns with PPG’s vision to leverage end-to-end digital technology to dramatically accelerate organic growth. Each one of our initial digital projects, for example, offers new opportunities for employees to directly contribute to the value we provide to customers.

One of these projects will use AI to predict and help optimize the output characteristics of each of the thousands of coating formulations that we produce everyday. This powerful new capability will, in turn, allow our chemists to create and deliver formulations that meet customer requirements more quickly and cost effectively. This single initiative can profoundly benefit our customers, employees and shareholders worldwide.

Employee to Enabler

Industry 4.0 requires that employees become primary enablers and the Operator 5.0 in the factory of the future. They must be highly capable and professional experts with a deep understanding of operational excellence. They must be innovative and decisive, have excellent communication and coaching skills, and be willing to challenge past norms and drive towards new key performance indicators. They will be super users of information technology. In many respects, tomorrow’s operator will be the equivalent of today’s engineer.

Our first call to action as manufacturers is to clearly communicate our vision for using digital technology to increase business agility, efficiency and competitiveness. We then must raise the bar for every employee, establishing clearly defined roles and responsibilities providing the support necessary for employees to succeed in these roles and, ultimately, holding everyone accountable for the decisions we ask them to make.

Some call this reskilling, while others refer to it as upskilling. Together, let’s call it