Industry 4.0, manufacturing copywriting and the comms challenges of automation

by Colm Hebblethwaite

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COVID-19 may have hit the pause button on nearly every aspect of modern life, but even it is not strong enough to halt the seismic shifts occurring across the manufacturing sector. Combining ongoing innovations in digital connectivity, the internet of things (IoT), machine learning and automation, the emergence of ‘industry 4.0’ promises to transform established processes, boost productivity and drive growth. And industry 4.0 is bringing a whole new language with it – think ‘big data’, ‘digitalisation’ and ‘smart cities’ for example. Companies are having to communicate some hugely complex and technical ideas to stakeholders and consumers. This creates some interesting challenges and opportunities for manufacturing copywriting.

The disruption of COVID-19, whilst unexpected, may be the catalyst for companies to digitalise and automate their operations faster than they otherwise would have. Which means they will need to address the communication challenges of automation too.

Every part of the manufacturing process is changing.

We now live in a world of smart fridges, digital home assistants and friendly chatbots. Across manufacturing supply chains, companies are using the same technological innovations to work in a faster, more flexible, and cost-effective way. Big data analytics, cloud storage, autonomous robots and industrial IoT allow manufacturers to reduce downtime, emergency maintenance and human error and better manage quality and logistics.

As well as boosting the profitability of companies this is also shifting the customer experience.  At every stage of the customer journey, digital technologies are enabling the personalisation and customisation of the interactions between people and companies. Data analytics allows companies to automate the process of recommending products and services based on a customer’s activity, while chatbots are capable of handling basic customer queries. Products now often come with built-in sensors that capture an uninterrupted stream of real-time data about how they are used. The number of places these interactions can take place has multiplied too. Customers can receive real-time updates on orders and can contact companies through a variety of digital platforms.

This is all changing the way companies need to communicate, meaning that manufacturing copywriting is going through a period of evolution too. Enhanced customer experiences and multiple touchpoints create long-form conversations between companies and their customers that take place across different formats and contexts. These interactions shape the way companies are viewed not just by consumers, but by employees, investors and other stakeholders too.

The comms challenges of industry 4.0

The pivot towards hyper-personalised customer experiences and innovative business models means there is a lot of content that needs to be created, and there are several tightropes to be navigated.

Losing the human touch

While talking about all the benefits that digital technologies and automation can bring, it is important to make sure you don’t portray your human workforce as a problem you are trying to fix. While we are not yet at the stage where manufacturing processes can function completely without human oversight, you need to make sure this doesn’t come across as your end goal. The passion, drive and culture of your business will always come from your employees, and your communications need to reflect that.

Job losses

Automation often means job losses, and this represents a difficult communications challenge. Automation is likely to be a tiered process, starting with simple, computational tasks and structured data analysis, before eventually moving onto physical labour and problem-solving in dynamic real-world situations. Each of these will affect the current composition of manufacturing workforces.

Job losses require clarity and honesty in communications. Overcomplicated or inconsistent messaging not only risks creating mistrust and resentment, but it can also harm your business’ reputation with external stakeholders, investors, and customers too.

When it doesn’t work

With more touchpoints and real-time delivery data, your customers will know when your processes aren’t working the way they should. Implementing the digitalisation at the heart of industry 4.0 is a large-scale change and one that involves significant organisational disruption. This means there will likely be mistakes, delays and loss of data.

It’s a lot easier to communicate when you have something good to say, but it becomes a lot harder to get the tone right when things go wrong. It can be jarring for consumers if the tone of communications goes from friendly and personable to stern and over-formerly if a product is late. This is where having a brand tone of voice becomes really important. It allows you to remain consistent across channels and subject matters.

The lack of clarity

One of the biggest obstacles to effective digitalisation is a lack of buy-in from decision-makers, stakeholders and employees. There are many potential reasons for this. The economic benefits of adopting new technologies or making large investments could be unclear, there could be insufficient qualifications among your employees or a lack of prioritisation due to other issues. You may not have established the right standards or clarified your exact legal position concerning the use of external data. These are all strategic issues that need to be communicated to both internal and external audiences clearly and carefully.

Talking honestly about privacy

Data is the fuel that powers industry 4.0, and those companies that can use it safely can benefit from the increased oversight and insight it gives into customer’s lives. Google, Uber and Amazon have embedded themselves into the fabric of modern life by using data to make people’s lives easier. But even these companies are regularly accused of endangering privacy and using underhanded practices. If you are collecting and analysing data produced through human interaction with digital solutions, you need to be very clear about what you are going to do with it.

Using communication to capture the opportunities of 4.0

Industry 4.0 is affecting almost every part of the manufacturing process, creating a dazzling array of opportunities as a result. Far from seeing every human removed from the process, it promises to free teams up to work in a more strategic and commercially focused way.

Effective communication plays an important role in times of change. It sets out visions, defines goals, binds teams together and creates loyal customers. But only if it is linked to your long-term strategy and factored into your planning. Which is where our experience and expertise adds a lot of value.  From planning to execution, we help manufacturing businesses communicate to internal and external audiences in a strategically focused way.

Take a look at our case studies to see some of the manufacturing copywriting projects we’ve been involved in.

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