M anufacturing has always been where ideas meet reality, or “brain meets brawn.” What once was merely a concept becomes something you can touch and see. In many ways, manufacturing is the ultimate blending of humans and machines. As we move through the transition to Manufacturing 4.0, the fundamental difference is in the changing relationship between those humans and machines. While the intelligent parts of manufacturing have always belonged to the humans, now it’s becoming the increasing domain of the machines.

As the Manufacturing Leadership Council’s latest Factories of the Future survey shows, many companies have implemented digitization in the places where it’s easiest and most logical to deploy or have plans to do so soon. That includes using automation processes like robotics, building and expanding networks on the factory floor, and using analytics and sensor networks to monitor machine performance. It’s the coming shift that shows the next iteration of interaction between humans and machines. Rather than simply using robotic process automation, more manufacturers anticipate that they’ll deploy cobots. Rather than just automating maintenance at regular intervals, companies are using predictive analytics to perform service as it’s needed.

But as the “smart” in smart manufacturing repositions itself, so too must the humans around those machines, especially when it comes to leadership. Executives will need to build their tech savvy and think in a data-driven manner, while also possessing the empathy and communication skills it takes to engage a changing workforce. Perhaps the new executive motto will become “act more human, think more machine.”

What seems most worrying from the survey results is the nearly one-third of respondents who said their plant floor leadership is not M4.0 ready and that their company isn’t taking any steps toward change. Likewise, only about 20% of respondents said that their plant floor culture was fully ready for M4.0 adoption or actively moving toward readiness.

It’s been noted before in times of change that the ones who survive aren’t the strongest, but the ones that are most able to adapt. For many manufacturers, that adaptability could be ready to meet its first very real test, a challenge that will put a premium on striking the right balance in the human-to-machine relationship.