Recent surveys of manufacturing businesses illustrate the broad range of pressures being experienced as the industry transforms itself and embraces the 4th Industrial Revolution. But transformation is rarely a single-threaded process and with so many industry trends and so much technology available, just how can a business decide which aspects demand urgent attention and which aspects can be put “on the back burner”?
In this article I will try to distil the current trends in manufacturing and describe what I feel are the three most important trends; those that should be actioned soonest. At the same time, I will also identify three trends that are perhaps less pressing in their urgency or can be approached in a reduced scale or more incremental fashion.
1. The smart factory
The results of the surveys conducted for the Annual Manufacturing Report 2018 clearly demonstrate that while the majority of businesses understand the benefits of introducing digital technologies to the shop floor and beyond, many have not yet found the right solutions that enable them to deliver those benefits. And the benefits are likely to be significant. Improvements in productivity, quality and compliance can be achieved by being able to monitor, and act upon, the data flowing from connected machines and sensors.
Shortages in the labour market and rising wages are making the case for investment in robotics and automated handling equipment increasingly attractive. A further benefit is that the automated data that is collected by the equipment can then be used by data analytic tool-sets to drive product and production improvements.
In addition to physical automation is process automation. Process automation tools provide the ability to automate communications, assign actions and approvals, support activity using mobile devices, automate interaction with social media, and to collaborate with suppliers and customers.
3. Customer centricity
Putting the customer at the core of every business operation is key to building customer loyalty and driving additional revenue streams. This should seamlessly embrace all aspects of customer contact. Today, a business that is “easy to do business with” would be expected to provide product data portals, trading portals, mobile applications, robust automated file transfer mechanisms, and collaborative product design and approval platforms. With growing export order books and with customers operating in different time zones, intelligent online tools are able to provide the 24 hour support platforms that are so important to customer collaboration.
And now for the three trends that, while still extremely important, can perhaps be approached differently, by implementing small scale validation cases, performing evaluation and preparation steps or simply by keeping a watching brief.
1. Servitisation business models
The packaging of pre and post-sales services, in support of the physical manufactured product and in conjunction with consumption based billing options, continue to grow in popularity. These not only offer additional revenue streams but also help to build customer loyalty.
With the advent of the “Internet of Things” (IoT) businesses now have the opportunity to look deeply into how customers are using their products, and that can support improvements in customer service and enhance availability through predictive maintenance programs – something that has a higher level of emphasis when consumption based pricing models are in play.
Servitisation business models can usually be introduced gradually, often for specific product models or ranges, and will provide the business with the opportunity to establish and optimise new business processes before committing to a wider range of products and services.
2. Machine learning and advanced analytics
Cloud computing is today allowing businesses to take advantage of the massive computing power that is required to perform advanced data analytics
The generation of forecasts from historic information is one of the easiest use-case scenarios. Machine learning can also be used to provide predictions, in particular product/machine failure predictions, based on sensor data and supporting maintenance activities. Of course, the data used in data analytics and machine learning must be of a high enough quality; gaps, inconsistency or inaccuracy in data will only deliver poor results. and artificial intelligence or machine learning. But how can these technologies be used and how do they apply to a manufacturer?
Time spent now in making sure that the data produced by the business is of the right calibre will yield benefits now and in the future.
3. Emerging technologies
When it comes to the technology that manufacturers might use in the future there is a lot to get excited about.
Additive manufacturing technology is yet to realise its full potential; as a minimum, businesses should be looking into whether 3D printing can speed up the product design through prototyping. Further study and investigation may uncover abilities to reduce inventory holding levels and improve customer service levels
Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) tools are, at last, becoming a reality. They will have a role to play in many areas of the business; supporting design and prototyping, sales agents with customers, workers on the shop floor and service and maintenance engineers. Employee skill sets will be supplemented and enhanced, products will be delivered to market faster and quality and efficiency levels will be boosted.
And finally, cognitive technologies. Cognitive technologies are already part of everyday life. When you speak to your car, phone or speaker cognitive technologies break down verbal instructions and learn your methods of command to improve their accuracy. Other cognitive service include facial recognition, image recognition, language translation and “web bots”. These tools are available as cloud services, allowing the business to take advantage of high-end technologies in imaginative ways to drive business improvements.