How Small Manufacturers Can Beat Their Larger Competitors


U.S. manufacturers have cause to celebrate. According to a December 2021 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industry has recovered 1.2 million of the 1.4 million jobs lost in March and April of 2020. With labor shortages the topic of small talk and big business decisions alike, this trend shows promise that manufacturing is on the right trajectory toward recovery.

Then why is everyone advocating so strongly for hiring and retention incentives? And why are small and mid-sized manufacturers still feeling like they’re shorthanded?

Simply put, the labor gap is both closing and widening at the same time.

There are still 219,000 fewer manufacturing workers than there were in February 2020, when demand was somewhat stable. Production stoppages amidst demand surges in nearly every goods category have made it difficult for manufacturers to catch up to pre-pandemic output levels. Even if those 200k+ jobs were filled today, more workers would be needed to match growing demand.

Plus, if you’re a small or medium-sized business (SMB), even one or two job openings on the line or loading dock can impact fulfillment capacity tenfold. But I don’t have to tell you that. I know you are working hard every day to increase output and that ongoing labor and supply shortages are keeping you up at night. I also know much of this is out of your control. Even if you worked every connection, leveraged every channel, and put every dollar into closing these gaps, you will probably still have the same number of people on the floor a month from now and certain SKUs will still be hard to deliver.

That’s why I want to remind you of what is in your control.

Making Size a Moot Point

Did you know SMBs can increase the output of their workforce more quickly than larger competitors? It’s true. SMBs don’t have to worry about as much red tape as larger companies when it comes to implementing changes. Those that lean on technology to augment their workforce can help the few workers left on the floor carry the workload of a full team without feeling overwhelmed. Pickers can move twice as fast through pick lists when they know exactly where to go and the more efficient route to get there. Combining augmented reality or voice picking guidance to a wearable mobile computer can help them fly through tasks frustration free.

And forklift operators responsible for the movement of both raw materials and finished goods would certainly appreciate someone – or something – steering them in the right direction. A large screen vehicle computer or tablet with voice navigation, perhaps?

All they have to do is follow instructions.

The same is true of those working at the loading dock, where truckers have been reporting noticeable slowdowns as of late. If workers call out sick, you must be able to shift employees from one department to the next without it becoming disruptive. Even on a good day, such as a fully staffed day, many employees are filling multiple roles. They can’t be expected to remember every process or anticipate when they need to be in a different department. At the same time, they shouldn’t be standing around at the loading dock waiting for trucks to arrive. Giving them mobile computers with software that can alert them when they’re needed at the loading dock to help with inbound or outbound loads is so simple, yet so impactful. Of course, those same mobile computers and wearables can then be used to guide them through the loading or unloading process. How should they pack a trailer? Where do items on a pallet need to be put away?

The more direction your workers are given the better, as they won’t waste a minute trying to track down someone who can tell them what to do next. At the same time, they won’t be in a position where they must guess about what to do or how to do it. They will be fully in the know at all times, and you’ll find you have better operational control as an organization, even when things are chaotic.

Even assembly line, quality inspection, and sourcing teams could benefit from some real-time guidance and automated decisions. Is this the right part? Is the bottle properly filled and sealed? Am I ordering enough materials for next month? These are all questions that can easily be answered and actioned by day-one employees if they have access to the right technologies.

In other words, the more “information” workers you have, the more your company’s size becomes irrelevant.

Don’t Expect Technology to Be a Magic Bullet

Giving workers new technology and expecting them to know how to use it is like expecting someone to know how to use a brand-new electronic coffee maker the second they open the box, without reading the instructions, just because they have used an electronic coffee machine before. Not all coffee machines work exactly the same. There will always be a bit of a learning curve for coffee makers and workplace technology, even for digital natives. That doesn’t mean you should temper your expectations of technology – or of workers. Quite the opposite.

I know I said that, as a smaller manufacturer, you should be focusing on technology to close labor gaps, increase your operational capacity and get a competitive edge. But technology will only be beneficial if workers know how to properly use it. I’m not just talking about powering on and off, logging in and out, or recharging, either. They need to know the purpose of every app, button, and feature, even if they don’t need it right away.

Of course, the goal should be to give them technology tools that are so simple there are only a few buttons, apps, and features they’ll need to learn. Don’t assume that because they have worked on an assembly line, loading dock or packing station before that they know how to use mobile computers, printers, barcode scanners or radio frequency identification (RFID) readers. And just because someone uses an Android smartphone outside of work doesn’t mean they will know how to use the rugged Android device you’re giving them to use inside the production facility. Commit as much effort into training your team on how to use the technology as you are to deploying and optimizing it.

Don’t Underestimate Your Current Technology Strength

I know your priority right now is getting products out the door. You may not feel you have time to “modernize” your technology systems. But you do have problems you need to solve for if you want to keep customers happy and, in a perfect world, be considered for contracts typically reserved for larger manufacturers. Therefore, it could be beneficial to audit your current systems.

It’s quite possible that it’s time to upgrade your existing technology. You may be trying to make do with an outdated operating system or software platform that is no longer supported or secure. Or, you may find that your hardware is missing a few key features that would make workers’ jobs so much easier. Then again, many companies don’t realize workers already have the tools they need to be more efficient until they start looking at their current technology platforms from a different perspective. Are workers using all the apps and features available to them? Could you quickly turn their devices into walkie talkies by adding push-to-talk or VOIP software? Or transform a handheld mobile computer into a voice-activated wearable to free up workers’ hands when they’re picking, packing, loading or unloading? Could your information systems be better integrated to ensure operations managers, workers and suppliers are making decisions based on the big picture?

Most likely, you will answer “yes” to at least one of those questions when you take a closer look at what you have already purchased as part of past technology implementations and upgrades. Just think about how many unused apps you have on your personal devices or how many features you don’t use on a regular basis – or ever – in your software platforms.

So, dig in. See what you can do to help your workers be valued contributors on their first day and every day thereafter, no matter how many tasks they must complete or how much help they will have from colleagues. If you only have three workers to make, pack or inspect 100 orders a day, that’s okay. If those workers have the information and instructions needed to be super-efficient, your customers won’t know the difference. They’ll just know they got their orders on time, and the quality was superb. And, in this day in age, on-time delivery of complete orders is really all that anyone cares about.

Amanda Honig is the Small and Medium-Sized Business Industry Lead for Zebra Technologies. To learn more about how smaller manufacturers can use technology to measure up to their larger competitors and customers’ heightened expectations, click here.


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