Innovation in the manufacturing industry – full speed ahead toward the new normal

The coronavirus pandemic accelerates the adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies within the manufacturing sector, making it more efficient, flexible, and resilient.
Industries: Covid-19Work
  • The pandemic’s impact on manufacturing
  • Challenging times call for remarkable innovations
  • Visions and predictions for the manufacturing sector
  • Closing thoughts

The pandemic has thoroughly stress-tested manufacturing systems and supply chains across the globe, revealing many inefficiencies and vulnerabilities. Simultaneously, the demand for supplies has spiked, with companies around the world struggling to keep up while having to comply with severe restrictions. The shock of this global disaster has, however, also opened up new avenues for a change of pace, and it looks like the manufacturing sector’s wheels of innovation are turning at full speed. According to Theo Saville, founder and CEO of CloudNC, “Supply chains have been torn apart, and the global vacuum of demand continues to push poorer performing manufacturers out of business. Conversely, the strongest and most innovative companies are surviving and even thriving, and coming out on the other side leaner, meaner, and with a reduced field of competition.”

The pandemic’s impact on manufacturing

There aren’t many sectors out there that were as severely affected by the pandemic as manufacturing. A recent survey conducted by the Institute for Supply Management reveals that almost 75 per cent of companies experienced supply chain disruptions as a result of the pandemic, which has led to extended lead times, shortages in freight capacity, and significant delays. That’s because thousands of companies still source essential parts and materials directly from China. While the need to improve the resiliency and visibility of the supply chain was evident even before the pandemic, the ensuing crisis has pushed it to the very top of the list of priorities and forced companies to embrace Industry 4.0 technologies on a much wider scale.

Management consulting firm McKinsey predicts that the pandemic will significantly accelerate the adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies, serving as “the inflection point” for this nascent trend. Some Industry 4.0 initiatives, including automation programmes, remote work, and automated planning, have already experienced more widespread adoption since the start of the pandemic. Similarly, technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and robotic process automation (RPA) are increasingly being employed by manufacturers as a way to streamline their financial operations processes and eliminate human error. 

Going forward, solutions like digital work instructions, AR-based operator assistance, digital maintenance, and digital performance management (DPM), will also become more widespread as manufacturers start to come to grips with the pandemic’s effects. Finally, now that the risk of overreliance on a single source has been made painfully obvious, manufacturers are expected to move away from international suppliers in favour of those located closer to home, which will allow them to strengthen their supply chains and make them more resilient to future disruptions.

Challenging times call for remarkable innovations

It didn’t take long for manufacturers to realise that the coronavirus pandemic isn’t going to end anytime soon, so many have taken steps to enable them to get their operations back on track. And this has led to many interesting initiatives and innovations.

Build your own AI

While AI technology can provide manufacturers with a wide range of benefits, its implementation is often hampered by the fact that it’s not only costly but also requires significant technical expertise to be done properly. To address this problem, the Hong Kong-based startup PowerArena launched a new tool called Build Your Own AI (BYOAI), which “enables users to easily and quickly establish an AI model that belongs to their production line exclusively.” ADLINK Technology, a Taiwan-based computer manufacturing company, was among the first to put this innovative solution to the test and use it to successfully identify bottlenecks in its production line. “Digitalisation with lean production can prompt real-time visual management, efficiently eliminate wastes, and a simple and smooth production,” explains Ben Cheng, the company’s business development director. “Whether or not it can be carried out, is a critical factor in achieving lean manufacturing.”

The rise of smart manufacturing

Widely regarded as one of the biggest proponents of smart manufacturing, Foxconn Industrial Internet (FII) recently announced the launch of a new industrial cloud platform called Foxconn Industrial Internet Cloud (FII Cloud). Developed in collaboration with Tencent Cloud, the new platform was designed to seamlessly connect all of Foxconn’s manufacturing plants in the cloud environment using a combination of operations technology and information technology. “The next decade of manufacturing will be such a sight to behold – the integration of intelligent manufacturing and industrial Internet platforms bring about the interconnectivity of the industrial chain, value chain, and supply chain. I’m convinced that FII is about to play an important role,” boasts Junqi Li, Chairman of FII.

Using 3D printing and robotics to simplify manufacturing processes

GE Healthcare, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of medical equipment, recently unveiled a new 3D printing and design center in Uppsala, Sweden, which aims to investigate how innovative technologies like 3D printing and robotics can help simplify complex manufacturing processes and accelerate the launch of new products and services for the healthcare industry. “We are exploring opportunities where additive manufacturing can bring cost savings and technical improvements to our supply chain and products,” explains Andreas Marcstrom, manager of Additive Engineering at GE Healthcare. “Simply printing a part doesn’t really deliver that much improvement to a product or process. You have to re-think the entire design – to do this, you need your R&D teams and your additive manufacturing engineers working from the start of the development process.”

Visions and predictions for the manufacturing sector

For the most part, industry experts agree that the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of the manufacturing sector. “In the current environment, we have highly complex and intelligent products and systems that can talk to each other while generating huge amounts of data. I believe a massive technological shift is underway,” predicts Prabhakar Shetty, global head of Manufacturing Services at L&T Technology Services. His views are echoed by Paul Baldassari, executive vice president of strategic programs and asset management with Flex. “It comes down to making better decisions based on current information. Whether you’re talking simulation, automation, machine to machine (M2M) communication, or virtual reality, businesses are finding that it’s easier to collect vast amounts of data that weren’t accessible before,” says Baldassari. “Digitising processes and coupling them with advanced analytics empowers employees to gain deeper insights, run tests, add innovation, and make real-time decisions that keep manufacturing operations running smoothly.”

Aidir Parizzi, director of global supply chain for IMI Critical Engineering, is also of the opinion that digitalisation will play a crucial role in the future of the manufacturing industry. “The fundamental reason to digitise is speed. It’s no longer only about making the right decisions, but about making them in the shortest possible time. We need to understand the impact, real or potential, of commercial risks and opportunities, faster than our competition and before it cascades to our customers,” explains Parizzi. “Beyond supply chain, the digital transformation effort had to be accelerated to cover all aspects of the operation, including relationships with customers and suppliers, remote customer assistance, inspections, and last but not least, how our products must adapt in a digital world… I don’t think there’s a single formula that serves all companies, and the concept of digitalisation itself keeps evolving rapidly. Each company will have to find its own solution.”

Although more and more manufacturing tasks are set to be automated, not everyone believes that full automation is the way to go. “Rather than the binary thinking where it’s either machine or human we need to think human plus machine. Then we can achieve new efficiency levels that neither machines nor humans can achieve alone,” says David Romero, professor of advanced manufacturing at the Tecnológico de Monterrey University in Mexico. Another person who believes that the future of the manufacturing industry lies in the cooperation between humans and machines is Dutch futurist Richard van Hooijdonk, who envisions robots taking over tedious, repetitive tasks, while humans focus on more complex aspects of the job. Van Hooijdonk further predicts that there will be a wider adoption of technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, IoT, and data analytics within the sector, transforming the manufacturing process from the ground up.

Closing thoughts

The coronavirus pandemic has had a dramatic impact on manufacturing operations across the globe, causing massive supply chain disruptions and widespread worker shortages, among other things. It has also highlighted the inherent dangers of single-sourcing strategy, which has become increasingly prevalent in the manufacturing industry in recent years. To resolve these issues and avoid succumbing to similar disruptions in the future, manufacturers are increasingly turning to technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, data analytics, 3D printing, and the IoT. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that humans won’t have a role to play in smart factories of the future. A far more likely scenario is that humans and machines will continue to work together, resulting in more flexible and resilient manufacturing processes.

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