How Digital Work Instructions Are Transforming Manufacturing

aerospace technicians reviewing digital work instructions on a tablet

Digital work instructions may not be talked about as much as AI, machine learning, or some of the other flashy technologies currently making headlines, but they could arguably be said to be transforming the manufacturing industry. After all, it wasn’t too long ago when manufacturers were relying entirely on paper-based instructions. While this traditional approach had been around for decades (and still plays an important role), its limitations became especially obvious as more manufacturing processes increasingly digitized. Paper documents were inflexible, error-prone, and difficult to update.

Digital work instructions changed that. Suddenly, workers across the manufacturing cycle, from engineers and project planners to the teams on the factory floor, could easily access up-to-date information, make edits and add clarifications, and distribute instructions to stakeholders who need them the most. In short, they allowed the industry to streamline its operations, reduce errors, and improve productivity — all of which help set up manufacturers to function more successfully in the modern digital era.

But despite their emerging importance, digital work instructions have still not become as ubiquitous as they should. This makes it worth diving into what they have to offer manufacturers, as well as how they can be implemented.

Overview of Digital Work Instructions

So what are digital work instructions, exactly? Simply put, they’re electronic or virtual versions of more traditional, paper-based work instructions, guides, manuals — really anything that gives users step-by-step directions on the best way to complete a task. Instead of being viewed and disseminated in physical form, however, workers can access them on their computers, phones, or other devices. As a result, they can take a variety of formats, such as PDFs, Word documents, or even web pages, and can be sent through any electronic means, from email to chat applications.

Because of all this, digital work instructions give manufacturers a way to enhance the efficiency of their production processes, while also improving accessibility and scalability. This happens in multiple ways. First and foremost, it is far easier to update digital work instructions and ensure a much higher degree of accuracy and consistency across operations. With everyone able to access the same documents, errors can be spotted faster and corrected in real-time. In the same way, updates can be made instantly and feedback incorporated as it comes in. No one will be stuck with out-of-date and inaccurate documents.

This ability to quickly respond to changes is a key way digital work instructions help enhance manufacturing agility. This is especially crucial when rapid updates need to be put in place, such as when a part or product requires a repair or new regulations are introduced. Being able to communicate new information to each person who needs it will streamline production, help optimize resources, and ultimately lower overall costs.

The Importance of Visual Work Instructions

Digital work instructions are rife with benefits. But when it comes to addressing the complexities of modern manufacturing processes, even they can run into limitations if they are confined to just text or drawings. This is where visual work instructions come in.

Visual work instructions build on the advantages of the digital format by adding in annotated images, videos, and other multimedia elements, such as 3D interactive models and animations. This visual context enables employees to gain a much richer and detailed understanding of the part or process they are working on. It can also help make the instructions themselves more concise and accessible. It’s not uncommon for technical manuals to run over 100 pages, particularly for complex assembly tasks or operations requiring precise manual interventions. It will take time for new workers to go through these instructions, especially if they’re also receiving advice from managers or other employees on the floor. That can all cause confusion, lower productivity, and increase expenses.

But when workers have visual instructions they can access on a tablet or workstation (or, even better, a pair of smart glasses with augmented reality capabilities), they can more easily go through a step-by-step process for executing a task. The benefits of this can be enormous. Workers will be able to learn complex processes faster and they’ll be able to do it largely on their own, freeing up other employees to work on higher value tasks. The visual content will also likely be much more engaging than textual, paper-based instructions, which can help encourage more continuous learning, both from new employees and those who are more experienced. And with a more informed, knowledge workforce, the advantages can be limitless. 

Challenges of Implementing Digital Work Instructions

Digitizing your work instructions has become a pivotal strategy for manufacturers looking to increase productivity and efficiency, which is why it’s important to be clear-eyed about some of the challenges you may encounter as you begin to transition away from traditional paper-based instructions.

For instance, after years or even decades of printed out instructions, fully adopting digitized work instructions may involve a steep learning curve. This will particularly be the case if you are also introducing new technology and processes along the way. Workers will need to be trained on how to use their new devices, access the instructions and data they need, and interact with them. 

Alongside this challenge is the issue of ensuring data security. How will you keep sensitive information from being shared while also making sure workers can access the instructions they need? How will you keep them from inadvertently sharing or communicating private data? 

Integration can also be a barrier. After all, in order for your digital work instructions to be useful, you’ll need to be able to continuously update them with the latest data and media. This will require close integrations with a variety of different systems, including PLM and CAD systems, as well as ERP, MES, and CRM platforms. Any compatibility issues with these may make your digital work instructions initiative less successful.

Best Practices for Implementing Digital Work Instructions

Fortunately, with the right processes in place, all of these challenges can be addressed. Here are some best practices you should follow as you digitize your work instructions:

  • Start with a thorough assessment. Trying to change over all your work instructions to a digital format can be daunting. Instead, take an incremental approach by first focusing on the areas that would benefit the most from digitalization. These will likely be any processes that are already highly complex and prone to errors. By conducting an assessment of your current processes, you can develop a more strategic plan for implementing your digital work instructions.
  • Consider all your required integrations. Where is your data coming from? Which systems will need to be able to integrate with your digital work instruction software in order to allow for continuous and seamless updates? Make sure you carefully consider these questions and thoroughly test out the software you choose to confirm that your full-scale rollout will be smooth.
  • Ensure your training program is thorough. The quality of your digital work instruction system won’t matter much if no one knows how to use it. Don’t leave anything to doubt by building a training program that covers both the basics of using the underlying technology and the specific digital work instructions platform. Be sure to also offer specialized training for employees based on their role or function, as well as establish a help desk that can offer ongoing support.
  • Meet them where they work. For good measure, ensure a smooth transition from traditional to digital work instructions by providing employees with a set of “digital training wheels.” For instance, by empowering them to print specific components, you can help them get used to the digital format without completely giving up their analog habits. Just remember to close the loop back to digital by giving them an easy way to capture their written markups and edits in a digital format.
  • Don’t forget about feedback. Once everything is in place, be sure to keep monitoring how your employees are using the system and whether there are any opportunities for improvement. Encourage teams to give you input on what they think is working effectively and what needs more attention. Doing this will help ensure your instructions continue to contribute to the productivity of your manufacturing processes.


Digital work instructions are a key way manufacturers are modernizing and digitally transforming their operations. They’re also something we’ve thought a lot about. We believe that the best manufacturing work happens when collaboration is as easy and seamless as possible. Our software enables this by collecting relevant technical data from all of your systems, then providing you with easy-to-use tools for building, publishing, sharing, and updating your work instructions. 

Request a demo today to see what Anark can do for you.

About the Author

Patrick Dunfey
Vice President of Marketing and Sales Enablement
Patrick is an accomplished marketing and sales enablement professional who knows that customers are at the heart of every great innovation. He focuses on driving customer satisfaction and business growth through aligned Product-Marketing-Sales programs. He uses digital systems and data-driven approaches to understand, measure and deliver success, resulting in unparalleled customer experiences and value.  Patrick has 20 years of enterprise software expertise, with specialties in CAD, PLM, ERP, AR/VR and IoT. Prior to joining Anark, Patrick developed and taught a business course on XR value strategy, helping companies identify and realize value using virtual, augmented, and mixed reality. During 14 years at PTC, a leading provider of product development software, Patrick led teams responsible for the design, build and launch of an award-winning, state-of-the-art technology experience center resulting in 5X customer meeting growth, and 66% close rates on those meetings; he led the development of a new IoT sales enablement strategy to map business value to enabling technology contributing to 52% YoY IoT revenue growth; and met with over 1000 companies, ranging from SMB to the Fortune 100, to help bridge the gap between technology and customer value. Patrick began his career as a mechanical engineer, working on product design and development projects with Brooks Automation, Arthur D. Little, U.S. Army, Keurig, and others. He earned his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Tufts University.
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