The rise of the digital consumer has increased the challenges faced by manufacturers. Manufacturers not only need to make quality products at cheaper prices and at a faster rate, they need to adapt and evolve to constantly changing consumer tastes or newly arising industry needs as well. The cost of failure or downtime is at prohibitive levels and offshore manufacturing in low cost countries brings its own set of disadvantages. This makes it all the more crucial that manufacturers adopt emerging technologies to thrive in a disruptive future. In that sense, digital transformation is a blessing, not a bane. We take a look at what are the top trends that will impact manufacturers in 2018.
1.IoT and Manufacturing: Connected Together
Gartner estimates that there will be over 20 billion connected devices by 2020 as sensors are eating the manufacturing world. The power IoT brings to manufacturing is akin to having eyes and ears installed on all machines – machines can sense minute changes and quickly spread information across factory floors or even cities or countries to make split-second decisions. IoT devices would have a direct impact in helping supervisors on factory floors track and prevent maintenance or breakdowns before they happen. In a more advanced use-case, IoT devices coupled with AI can make machines smarter, being capable of making decisions too. Chemical manufacturer BASF uses IoT and AI to make customized formulations of soaps and shampoos. The RFID tags attached to each container communicate the instructions of the materials required and the exact formulation through wireless network, and the whole process is automated.
2.Artificial Intelligence and Manufacturing: Smarter Manufacturing
There are plenty of inefficiencies in manufacturing due to lack of data to make timely decisions. Research suggests that utility costs amount to 45% of the total production costs for electronics companies. A large part of this is redundant and can be avoided. Supply chain bottlenecks can result in tremendous amount of wastage or natural loss. Breakdown of equipment or factory downtime can cost manufacturers dearly. Artificial Intelligence will play a big role in helping manufacturers tackle some of these challenges. When AI is leveraged with other tools such as IoT, Robotics and Cloud Computing, it can help in better demand forecasting, capacity utilization, preventive maintenance and quality control. A key factor to AI succeeding will be the rise of the Industrial Cloud.
With connected devices sending in huge amounts of data, it makes sense for manufacturers to consolidate and monetize the data into a larger industrial cloud. Predix by GE is one such example. The Predix Cloud environment allows machines to be connected to the Industrial cloud to transmit and extract data for intelligent decision making and predictive analysis.
3.Augmented Reality and Manufacturing: Extending Capabilities
The rise of VR Glasses such as Microsoft’s HoloLens and the Oculus Rift had sparked a VR/AR craze in the media industry. But it was never really considered for something as serious and complicated as manufacturing. Well, not exactly. It turns out there are a lot of potential areas where Augmented Reality can extend human capabilities and reduce errors. For one thing, manufacturing drawings or assembly instructions are usually stored as PDFs, which can be cumbersome to manage and would require taking printouts. These can be digitized into VR/AR modules, which show the step-by-step process for any item. Maintenance operations and quality assurance are other areas where AR/VR can play a crucial role. Thyssenkrup is using Microsoft Hololens to help their 24,000 service engineers in handling repairs and maintenance tasks in remote or hands free environment, reducing the time taken to complete service calls by 400%.
4.Robotics and Manufacturing: The Multiplier Effect
Robotics has been used in factories for quite some time now, though it has involved heavy capital outlay and extensive programming. Industrial robots are also dangerous and need to operate within fenced area. To compensate these deficiencies, a new set of robots called collaborative robots are on the rise. Affectionately called cobots, these smaller cousins are cheaper and programmed for general purpose. They can be guided by hand and can be easily maneuvered to show the repetitive steps to be performed. Baxter and Sawyer are cobots used by office furniture manufacturer Steelcase to perform repetitive tasks such as loading plates or tubes and placing them in a fixture. This has freed their operators to do more important activities.
5.Social Media and Manufacturing: Engaging Your Audience
Social Media tools offer manufacturers a powerful way to directly reach and engage their consumers with their products. Manufacturers should actively consider LinkedIn and YouTube as effective channels to promote their business. LinkedIn is the number one place to network for B2B companies and serious companies should maintain a LinkedIn profile. They should also consider actively sharing content (not spamming) which is relevant and targeted.
YouTube is another area where manufacturers can display their products. Creating product info videos, training videos as well as customer testimonials can positively engage with your potential customers. Research shows that if a video is embedded on your site, it can boost traffic 200% – 300% and double the time visitors spend on a page. Having a cohesive and complete social media strategy will help manufacturers reach out to a broader segment of customers and establish a strong relationship with them.
Closing thoughts: What Does the Future Hold?
Manufacturers will have their hands full in the coming year as they evaluate the different technology options they have and which ones they finally adopt. What is more important is to have a cohesive digital strategy with measurable metrics and reasonable expectations. Identifying the right technology partners would be critical and upskilling their current workforce to meet the job requirements of the future is something to be fast-tracked.