Lee Sands asks how manufacturers can stay ahead of the curve when it comes to adopting new technologies.
Since the early days of the first industrial revolution back in the 1760s, it’s been the advent of new technologies that has helped the manufacturing sector to develop and grow. Today’s seemingly unending raft of new, disruptive technologies and the emergence of Industry 4.0 in particular, are the current driving force behind the growth of manufacturing industries the world over. But, in an increasingly fast-paced business world, the disruptive technologies of today will rapidly become tomorrow’s norm. So rather than ‘if’ manufacturers should adopt these new technologies, it’s more a case of when.
The appetite to invest in technology is there, with a recent Deloitte survey of manufacturers finding that in just two years, the readiness of companies to adapt to Industry 4.0 had increased from just 29% of respondents to 80% - a staggering rise in a relatively short time period. That doesn’t mean that it should be a case of investing in every new technology that comes along, for fear of being outgrown and outpaced by the competition, but it does mean that decisions need to be taken as to which technology investments, or combination of technology investments, are best for your particular manufacturing business. The only way to do this is to map strategic priorities against the different potential technologies, prioritising which investments will add real value to the business, in terms of efficiency and ROI.
High volume process manufacturers might choose to invest in next generation robotics to fulfil their main business priority of quicker, more efficient production at a lower overall cost. Industrial robots are quickly becoming faster, cheaper and smarter, with more human capabilities such as increased dexterity and memory. A new generation of collaborative robots operate alongside the traditional workforce, speeding up production and leading to major efficiency savings in the process. There’s also recent developments in nano technology, involving the manipulation of matter on atomic, molecular and supra-molecular scales, making this a very appealing investment for those businesses for whom super precision manufacturing is key.
For equipment-heavy manufacturers, their investments should most likely be in the interconnected systems of Industry 4.0, with big data and predictive maintenance technologies leading to less machinery downtime, less manual intervention and ultimately, a spike in productivity. Plus, the deep data inter-connectivity afforded by the Internet of Things can increase quality, reduce waste and lower costs across the business, three of the most important priorities for many manufacturers today. For those manufacturers where complex supply chains are a major source of business headaches, advanced analytics can provide previously unseen levels of visibility and insight into the business and wider supply chain. This ability to highlight inefficiencies enables businesses to streamline their manufacturing supply chain, saving time and money in the process.
From an engineering point of view, 3D printing or additive manufacturing is also set to change the face of manufacturing. Forcing product developers to think differently, the ability of 3D printing technology to fabricate entire products, without the need for the welding of numerous parts and such like, speeds up both the design and manufacturing process. The increasing run-lengths afforded by the technology also means that short-run production requirements are now a reality, as well as customisation and personalisation at the click of a mouse.
Where once connectivity and security concerns had meant that manufacturers weren’t too keen on turning to the cloud for their business, developments in cloud computing have seen more and more manufacturers getting on board, realising real business benefits in the process. Particularly for those manufacturing businesses spread across different sites, hosting solutions in the cloud can not only help to reduce IT overheads, but enable greater levels of quality control and increase the speed of production.
In light of the Deloitte survey findings that 40% of respondents agreed they didn’t have the necessary skills and staff to transform to Industry 4.0, perhaps one of the most important investments to consider is an investment in people. Without the right skills and talent to exploit new technology, manufacturers will struggle to realise a maximum level of ROI. Again, mapping investments against business strategy and priorities will enable manufacturers to gain a thorough understanding of where they should invest first, be it in people or technology.
Manufacturers are rapidly realising that these new, disruptive technologies aren’t quite as disruptive as they first seem, with an increased understanding that investments in the technologies of tomorrow can help to manufacture faster, at a consistently higher quality, and at a lower cost. Knowing where to invest first is key, ensuring that the investment fits the business, and it’s only then that manufacturers can hope to keep ahead of the rapidly evolving technology curve.
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