How to Leverage Manufacturing Technology Trends to Weather Major Disruption

June 8, 2020 | Article

Technology is helping manufacturers move the needle in multiple aspects of their businesses. And it’s also helping them weather major disruptions like the COVID-19 pandemic. However, with so many possibilities, it can be difficult to determine which products will have the most impact for your processes and protect your business through such uncertainty. Each has benefits worth pursuing, but which have been most relevant in this market and why?

Even before this crisis, the priority for manufacturers when looking at technology has been improving operations so they can meet customer expectations while minimizing risk overall. That means investing in tools that provide greater visibility into products and processes, allow you to scale operations quickly up or down, and gather insights from which you can take proactive and immediate measures.

All of this is meant to fortify your company against drastic market swings, but also allow you to capitalize on market opportunities. With the current COVID-19 pandemic, fortification and flexibility can make a significant difference for manufacturers.

There are several Industry 4.0 manufacturing technologies that are emerging as front-runners in the pursuit of these goals. Industry 4.0 refers to this period in our industrial evolution where we’re introducing digitization, connectivity, machine learning and intelligence 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, and more manufacturers are doing that this year. They’re finding that cloud services and a robust 5G connection are most conducive to success as they incorporate smart technologies and their factories become more “connected.” They are using the cloud to:

  • Scale their services to meet their actual needs as they change
  • Gain greater, more immediate visibility over their infrastructure and processes
  • Mobilize their processes and dashboards for their workforce
  • Enable their workforce to work together more effectively
  • Operate and automate smart technologies throughout their operations

Having your operations in the cloud can be immensely helpful as you manage the impacts of the pandemic and other crises. As demands change, for example, respond more immediately and efficiently. It will also be easier to deploy certain roles to work remotely while retaining a high level of collaboration.

We’ve broken down four reasons to pursue cloud-based ERP systems.

Technology and the Workforce

This year, manufacturers are integrating technology into their production processes in ways that merge with and enhance human effort.

  • Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality – Manufacturers use these technologies to train employees, enable product visualization for inspection and design, and allow for remote services and collaboration among team members. Tools for AR and VR range from augmented visuals on a smartphone to industrial wearables.
  • Robotics – Robotic technology and robotic process automation have 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. These include mobile robots on factory floors and “cobots,” which are collaborative robots that work alongside the workforce on the production line.

These technologies can be useful if your operations are disrupted. Use your AR/VR tools to quickly train employees if you need to shift their responsibilities to higher-demand products or new products entirely. And robots can help mitigate health risks by taking over certain responsibilities so that your employees can practice social distancing or take leave as needed. Further, robotic process automation – as with all automation efforts throughout your processes – can help you to run lean through uncertainty.

Technology can also help you with repositioning in the next normal.

Bringing Together AI and the Internet of Things in Manufacturing

There is a lot to gain from merging AI with IoT in manufacturing, and companies are taking notice. On their own, IoT sensors provide valuable information about nearly every process, including your inventory, supply chain, production line and transportation. The sensors can even give you insights into product performance in the field.

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

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

    According to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, such predictive maintenance could lower equipment maintenance spending by 10% to 40%, and it can lower equipment downtime by up to 50%.
  • Supply Chain Improvements – Using artificial intelligence in manufacturing with IoT technology enables you to discover inefficiencies that exist in your supply chain and apply solutions. The AI can also identify patterns along the chain that can help you discover problems in real time, so you can maintain high standards and avoid issues with your products.
  • Warehouse Management – IoT and AI in factories can enable you to automate inventory processes and better manage your warehouse. For instance, you can use IoT sensors to weigh inventory in order to have an accurate, real-time account. Inventory management is a pressing challenge for distributors. Using IoT, AI and automation—along with a quality ERP system—gives them enhanced visibility over their warehouses and eliminates this challenge.

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. And you’ll be able to monitor and even repair equipment without needing a technician on-site.

Enabling Traceability with Blockchain in Manufacturing

Finally, manufacturers are starting to get on board with blockchain technology as the demand for greater visibility and traceability rises. Blockchain gives you a complete and accurate record that cannot be altered, which is most useful across a manufacturer’s supply chain. It follows the product through the chain and records each action, so that there are no mysteries and you can trace back 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 their supply chains before they could even feel the effects and might become an essential technology as the industry moves forward.

Which Manufacturing Technology Trend is Worth Following?

As you assess this year’s trends and consider applying them to your business, you must also consider the risk of staying in a “technology debt.” Operating with outdated technology makes your operations more vulnerable and keeps your company stuck in the past. In fact, right now there are countless organizations across industries discovering their outdated technology presents nearly insurmountable challenges as they manage and mitigate the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

Identify the technologies that will help you most in your current operations, keeping you competitive and flexible against a fluctuating market and fortifying your business against present and future disruption.

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