How to Leverage Manufacturing Technology Trends to Weather Major Disruption

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Technology helps manufacturers move the needle in multiple aspects of business, and it’s also helping them weather major disruptions, like supply chain complications. However, with so many possibilities, it can be difficult to determine which products will have the most impact on your processes and protect your business through such uncertainty.

For years, the priority for manufacturers when looking at technology has been improving operations to meet customer expectations while minimizing overall risk. This goal often requires investing in tools that:

  • Provide greater visibility into products and processes
  • Allow you to scale operations quickly up or down
  • Gather insights to help take proactive and immediate measures

These tools ultimately fortify your company against drastic market swings, while allowing you to capitalize on market opportunities. When dealing with disruption, fortification and flexibility can make a significant difference for manufacturers.

There are several Industry 4.0 manufacturing technologies emerging as front-runners in the pursuit of these goals. Industry 4.0 refers to the current period in our industrial evolution where digitization, connectivity, machine learning and intelligence are being introduced to production processes on a broad scale.

Moving to the Cloud

One of the most effective steps in making your company more flexible and agile is moving your operations to the cloud. Over the past several years, many manufacturers have moved their operations partially or entirely to the cloud. Gartner estimated that $332.3 billion would be spent on cloud solutions in 2021, up 23% from the previous year. Manufacturers are finding that cloud services and cellular network connectivity are most conducive to success as they incorporate smart technologies and their factories become more “connected.”

Common uses of cloud options for manufacturers include:

  • The ability to scale services to meet actual needs as they change
  • Gaining greater, more immediate visibility into infrastructure and processes
  • Mobilizing processes and dashboards for the workforce
  • Enabling employees to work together more effectively
  • Operating and automating smart technologies throughout operations

Having your operations in the cloud can be immensely helpful as you manage the impacts from the pandemic and other crises, such as weather-related disruptions or geopolitical events. For example, if demands fluctuate due to supply chain challenges, you can respond more immediately and efficiently. The cloud also makes it easier to deploy certain roles to work remotely while retaining a high level of collaboration.

The right technology, coupled with the correct processes and people, can help lead digital first thinking.

Technology and the Workforce

Manufacturers are integrating technology into production processes in ways that both merge with and enhance human effort. Some of the latest trends include Artificial Intelligence (AI) and virtual reality.

  • Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) – Manufacturers can use these technologies to train employees, enable product visualization for design, view products remotely for inspection and allow remote services and collaboration among team members. Some examples of tools for AR include viewing inventory visuals and descriptions from a simple tablet or scanning a barcode or QR code from your smartphone. VR is often used as safety gear to monitor and log an employee's health (such as their heart rate and body temperature,) location and external environment (including factors like temperature, radiation or toxicity) to provide real-time data and safety metrics.
  • Robotics – Robotic technology and robotic process automation has become increasingly affordable, accessible and safe for use in manufacturing, which is driving small- and medium-scale manufacturers to employ more of them in their processes. This technology includes mobile robots on factory floors and “cobots,” which are collaborative robots that work alongside the employees on the production line.

These technologies can be useful if your operations are disrupted. You can use AR/VR tools to quickly train employees if you need to shift their responsibilities to higher-demand products or new products entirely. Robots can also help mitigate health risks by taking over certain responsibilities so that your employees can work at a safe distance from one another or take leave as needed. As with all automation efforts, robotic process automation can also help you run lean through uncertainty.

Bringing Together AI and the Internet of Things in Manufacturing

Merging AI with the Internet of Things (IoT) in manufacturing can bring many benefits to companies, and people are taking notice. On their own, IoT sensors provide valuable information about nearly every process from your warehouse inventory and production line to your supply chain and transportation. The sensors can even give you insights into product performance in the field. These sensors can monitor the temperature or humidity for machinery; measure pressure changes in gases or fluids to detect leaks; or detect proximity through infrared sensors on assembly lines.

When you add AI to the mix, you enable IoT products to use the information they’ve gathered to perform analytics and improve processes, build forecasts and reduce inefficiencies. AI opens up the possibilities for:

  • Maintenance Forecasting – When you use IoT and AI in manufacturing, the technologies work together to find patterns in equipment performance, including production line equipment and products in the field. This technology can detect changes or failures so that you can perform predictive maintenance and avoid production delays.

    According to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, predictive analytics can help lower equipment maintenance spending by 10% to 40%. It can also lower equipment downtime by up to 50%.
  • Supply Chain Improvements – Using artificial intelligence in manufacturing with IoT enables you to discover inefficiencies that exist in your supply chain and apply appropriate solutions. Receive demand-forecasting models to manage your inventory and processes more efficiently. AI can give you the end-to-end insight required to run your business more successfully.

    AI can also identify patterns along the chain. If these patterns cause problems, such as working with a particular vendor who is repeatedly late in providing you with raw materials, you’ll be able to see that information in real time. These insights allow manufacturers to maintain their high standards and avoid issues with their products. According to McKinsey, linking your supply chain management system with AI can improve logistics costs by 15%, inventory levels by 35% and service levels by 65%.
  • Warehouse Management –Automate inventory processes and better manage your warehouse through IoT and AI. For instance, you can use IoT sensors to weigh inventory to gain accurate, real-time data. Inventory management is a pressing challenge for distributors. The Internet of Things, AI and automation—along with a quality ERP system—provide enhanced visibility over warehouses and eliminate any inventory management challenges.

IoT and AI used in these capacities can make excellent buffers against disruption. Your IoT tools will deliver real-time information to help you manage changing supply, inventory and demand – as it’s happening. You’ll also be able to monitor and repair equipment without needing a technician on-site.

Enabling Traceability with Blockchain in Manufacturing

Manufacturers are also starting to get on board with blockchain technology as the demand for greater visibility and traceability rises. Blockchain is a distributed ledger, which means that multiple parties share access to a single source of information. Blockchain gives you a complete and accurate record that cannot be altered, which is useful across manufacturing supply chains.

This technology follows the product through the chain and records every action of each link, so there are no mysteries, and you can trace back your products’ journey as needed. When you add IoT technology to this, you can gain further insights that blockchain would otherwise not account for. This technology has helped manufacturers identify disruptions in supply chains before feeling the effects. Blockchain is expected to become an essential technology for the industry moving forward.

Which Manufacturing Technology Trend is Worth Following?

As you assess trends and consider applying them to your business, you must also consider the risk of staying in “technology debt.” Operating with outdated technology leaves your operations vulnerable and may keep your company stuck in the past. Countless organizations are discovering that outdated technology is presenting nearly insurmountable roadblocks when managing and mitigating both minor and major disruptions.

Identify the technologies that will help you most in your current operations. This reality check will keep you competitive and flexible against a fluctuating market, while fortifying your business against future challenges.

Stay agile amid disruption. Learn how technology and digital first-thinking can transform your manufacturing operation.

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