APS Plastics & Manufacturing Blog

Worker 4.0

Much has been written about Industry 4.0 and its subset Manufacturing 4.0. But there is not a lot written about the people required to meet this changing landscape of making things. Where are the 4.0 workers? In the last blog, I wrote about The Future of Meaningful Work – how leaders and designers must rethink the way they create the machines and systems in the new industrial world. There is a companion part of this effort: to help create the industrial worker for the new manufacturing revolution: WORKER 4.0.


This next generation industrial worker must be capable of and engaged in working in the new world. It is not enough just to do some training and hope that people embrace change. While it is true that we need to help build skills, there is more to this than skills. The most important thing leaders can do is to embrace the re-emergence of the craftsman. I’ve often visualized an almost mythical bespoke maker, a craftsman as a blacksmith working away in an ancient village. This person was the epitome of someone making something real, using hard earned skills and knowledge, for people that really needed what he made. The work was not easy. It involved working next to a very hot fire, using his entire body, and tools like hammers, tongs, and anvils to literally shape blazing hot wrought iron into something that didn’t exist before he began his work. This was fundamentally creative work. And he was at the center of this creative process.

For someone to become a Worker 4.0, they need to become a “blacksmith” again. To be at the center of the creative process vs. a part of a bigger machine. Yes, workers must collaborate and must be part of a larger ecosystem of making things, but they must fundamentally be the center of their own creative processes and not just a cog in the machine.


So, how do leaders help create this new (old) way of working again? It starts by rethinking the way we see people who make things in our organization. This isn’t empowerment (real or fake); instead it starts with the person doing the making, standing at the center of design – giving them broad and sweeping freedom to make. Of course, it is important to have certain guardrails like safety, HR issues, etc., but the guardrails should be wide enough for the creative process to work. This is a frightening process for most leaders who are accountable for results at the end of the day. However, the stakes are too high for us not to take this kind of a risk. If we don’t take the risk, the new blacksmiths will not emerge because we will not have enough people or the right people to make things in the new era of manufacturing. Our companies will fail to those that do change.


The best thing we can do is to create space for a small number of our people to operate with near complete independence. Let them pick a problem to solve and let them solve it however they want. Ideally, an entire organization would operate this way but that might be too much change and too fast for some leaders. The concept I’m suggesting has been called many things, including Skunk Works. A Skunk Works of this type is as much about solving a hard problem, as it is about creating a new organizational structure where the worker is at the center.

For some suggestions on setting up a Skunk Works, check out this article.


We must be thoughtful when selecting the people that enter the Skunk Works. They will be your best people and it will most likely hurt the rest of the organization with their absence from everyday work. It takes commitment. They will need tremendous autonomy when selecting the tools and technologies they use to solve problems. In fact, they might not use much technology at all. That’s fine. They will figure out when technology is a good part of the solution set. It’s up to them. Our jobs as leaders is to nurture and protect this small team. We must act like gardeners that pull weeds – make sure there is enough sun and water for the plants to grow, but not tell the plants how to grow. It already knows. Its DNA contains all the instructions it needs. This is true of a craftsman too. The mindset to make wonderful things already exists within them and we should create an environment that allows them to be them. We stay out of his way and keep the weeds out of his way. There will be failures. Maybe big ones. This isn’t for the faint of heart.


With time and patience, these small teams of blacksmiths will begin to slowly transform themselves and, through the work they do, our companies. Most importantly, these blacksmiths will become the new workers we all need to live in the new age of technology enabled industry. They will design and use the right tools that make sense, that truly create value for the people that use our products and services.

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Topics: Insider Communication technology automation apprenticeship 4.0 manufacturing 4.0 Industry 4.0