Technology is bringing about sweeping change in the manufacturing sector. With this technological evolution, the term ‘factory’ is moving away from the image of tall smokestacks and winding queues of workers and is entering the age of the ‘smart factory’. The move towards the smart factory is a revolution of sorts where technologies such as IoT, cloud, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, and others are helping them increase efficiencies, reduce waste, improve costs, and make the factory environment optimized and more secure.
It is becoming abundantly clear that to stay relevant in an increasingly competitive market, manufacturing companies have to pay attention to their digital transformation initiatives to capably usher in the age of Industry 4.0. According to PWC’s fourth annual ‘Industry 4.0 Global Digital Operations Study, 2018 – Digital Champions, 86% of the 2000 manufacturers surveyed expect to see revenue gains and reduced costs as a result of their digitization efforts over a period of five years.
Quite understandably, manufacturers have to jump onboard the digital transformation bandwagon, if they haven’t done so already. As we enter into this new age of manufacturing and that of connected consumers and customized experiences, here are five trends to keep a close eye on.
Internet of Things (IoT)
IoT lies in the heart of digital transformation initiatives in the manufacturing industry. IoT brings the capability to streamline and simplify several manufacturing processes, provide real-time feedback, alerts, improve asset management, and optimize the logistics, supply chain, safety, and the operations ecosystem. IoT enables the smart factory concept and gives manufacturers the advantage to measure and manage their production and operations using data. It also helps in creating Digital Twins to ensure that the final product doesn’t have any faults and shortcomings thereby reducing expenditure and employee burdens. Forbes predicts that ‘IoT in manufacturing, logistics, and transportation will rise to $40 Billion by 2020.
Using IoT solutions, sensors, and other digital devices such as smartphones and tablets, manufacturers can now create an environment to gain answers to pressing questions – how can the inventory be managed better? What can be done to optimize the supply chain? Which equipments need servicing and maintenance and when? How can the speed of production be increased? The data generated by the IoT network helps manufacturers answer these and many such pressing questions.
Boeing, for example, has been using IoT to drive efficiency throughout factories and supply chain. Bosch is using the IoT based track and trace program to help workers find tools faster. They also plan to use this system to guide their assembly line operation.
Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
The advanced algorithms employed in AI and Machine learning are helping manufacturing companies transform the way they collect information, predict consumer behaviors, and perform skilled labor tasks. AI and machine learning algorithms take the guesswork out of the manufacturing ecosystem and help manufacturers quantifiably determine the factors that impact the production quality and service. These two technologies are helping manufacturers to increase production capacity by almost 20% while reducing material consumption rates by 4%.
AI and machine learning bring greater predictive accuracy to every phase of the production process and assist in keeping the supply chain running with extreme efficiency. This gives manufacturing companies the capability to produce customized products on time. These two technologies also help in reducing downtime by enabling predictive maintenance, improving the Repair and Overhaul performance and enabling continuous monitoring processes to scale to manage the Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE).
Apart from this, AI and machine learning technologies are being put to work in generative design which helps in exploring all possible permutations and combinations of a solution, and computer vision to find defects and problems invisible to the human eye.
The use of robots in the manufacturing environment is making the factory of the future a reality today. While initially, robots were being employed to conduct repetitive and tedious tasks, the technology today is far more advanced. As robots become more capable of mimicking human actions and gain dual-arm control, we find the use of collaborative robots increasing in the manufacturing ecosystem. These collaborative robots are making the manufacturing environment safer as they are now replacing humans at sites that are dangerous. These new age robots have the capability to respond to their environment and take actionable steps to improve shop floor productivity.
The automotive industry, for example, is heavily using these new-age, collaborative robots and are integrating them with their computer network making these robots a part of their computer network.
3D printing is propelling manufacturing into the future by powering up product design. Also called Additive Manufacturing, 3D printing aids digital transformation efforts in the manufacturing ecosystem by reducing the time, effort and resource costs associated with product design. Additive manufacturing offers manufacturing companies immense traction when it comes to design freedom. It helps them create low-cost prototypes faster and test them at lower costs and enable faster feedbacks and iterations. It also gives the product designers the flexibility to innovate and look at new permutations and combinations with regard to materials and different material combinations. It hardly comes as a surprise that 3D printing is a USD 6.063 Billion industry. Companies such as Ford, Boeing, and Airbus are extensively making use of this technology to improve their product development and enable greater customizations.
In manufacturing, as with other industries, data is the ultimate leveler. As we move into the age of Smart Manufacturing, robust data analytics becomes a key facilitator of digital transformation initiatives. The volume of data keeps increasing exponentially in this ecosystem owing to the use of sensors and IoT. Manufacturing companies are looking at ways to optimize their data analytics operations which includes how they store, manage and analyze data in this connected environment, enable a degree of interoperability between the data and use advanced analytics systems to leverage the data generated in this connected environment to improve manufacturing outcomes.
Digital Transformation for manufacturing industry is now critical for success. These trends are driving digital transformation initiatives for now. It will be interesting to witness the evolution of these technologies to see how far it changes this industry.