Technology “Transforming” the Manufacturing Sector

The time for the manufacturing sector to invest in technology is now, according to a recent report by business consulting firm PWC.

PWC’s Robert Bono and Stephen Pillsbury authored the 2016 Industrial Manufacturing Trends Report, which focused on the importance of U.S. manufacturers balancing risk and reward of embracing new technologies.

The report recognizes that many manufacturers are still wary to make major investments due to the lingering sting of the most recent recession and some current headwinds. However, it contends that companies must embrace the “technological renaissance” manufacturing is currently in the midst of, which is “transforming the look, systems and processes of the modern factory.”

“Despite the risks — and despite recent history — industrial manufacturing companies cannot afford to ignore these advances,” the report reads. “By embracing them now, they can improve productivity in their own plants, compete against rivals, and maintain an edge with customers who are seeking their own gains from innovation.”

It contends that manufacturing executives should be actively weighing the benefits, value, return on investment and risks of investing in the various technologies emerging in the industry. According to the authors, the industries should be bracing for a “data-driven factory of the future,” where all of a company’s activities are streamlined.

“Customers, designers and operators will share information on everything from initial concepts, to installation, to performance feedback throughout the life cycle,” according to the report. “Operators will access materials on demand, collaborate with robots to use them safely and ergonomically, and rely on virtual work instructions presented at the point of use. Assembly lines will output highly personalized products, sometimes in a lot size of one, that contain zero defects.”

Bono and Pillsbury say four developments are driving this change.

  1. The “Internet of Things” has given rise to the “connected factory” that expands “the power of the web to link machines, sensors, computers and humans in order to enable new levels of information monitoring, collection, processing and analysis,” according to the report. Investments in this technology, however, should be determined by close examination of what data is most valuable to collect for a particular company or sector.
  2. Robotics is another key driver in the evolution of manufacturing technology, and China is leading the way in this. According to the International Federation of Robotics, since 2013, the number of shipments of multipurpose industrial robots in that country roughly doubled to an estimated 75,000 in 2015, with that number forecast to double again by 2018. The report notes that the U.S. is increasingly adopting what is referred to as “cobotics,” which is the use of robots to complement workers rather than replace them.
  3. Advances in computer vision, computer science, information technology and engineering have allowed manufacturers to deliver real-time information and direction at the point of use, according to Bono and Pillsbury. In this “augmented reality,” users “simply follow the text, graphics, audio, and other virtual enhancements superimposed onto goggles or real assemblies as they perform complex tasks on the factory floor.” These tools can assess the accuracy and timing of these tasks while simultaneously notifying the operator of quality risks.
  4. 3D printing is the last-but-not-least category the report notes. “3D printing is still in its infancy, and the technology is currently limited in the performance specifications of the products it can produce,” the report reads. “But companies must begin planning for the incorporation of this technology now. As an initial step, industrial manufacturing companies should apply 3D printing technology to the product development and prototyping process, where its speed and flexibility can spur innovation and reduce time-to-market.”

The report claims many of the technological innovations used in manufacturing today will be commonplace within the next 5 to 10 years, meaning that manufacturing executives “must lead with an eye toward that reality, and not merely the current bottom line.”

Editor’s note: Featured image shows a Crystal Window and Door Systems worker from a plant tour in 2013.

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