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The State of Manufacturing

From the early days of steam power, through the growth of automated production lines powered by electricity, and right up to the use of computer technology and robotics, manufacturing has been at the vanguard of innovation and technological development. It’s not just an historical phenomenon though. It’s an evolution that continues—with innovative manufacturers now building on cloud technologies to connect people, processes, suppliers, and customers like never before—and in the process enhances their operations to the benefit of the bottom line.

That is one of the main conclusions of the second annual State of Manufacturing Technology report from Plex Systems. The study took a snapshot of the views of almost 200 manufacturers across a number of verticals, to learn more about their how they use technology now and how they plan to leverage new tech advances in the future. The result is fascinating insight in to not just the ways in which technology is shaping manufacturing processes, but also how the new era of “connected manufacturing” needs people with different skill sets in the workforce to function effectively.

Cloud as a Catalyst for Connections 

The study found that although many manufacturers don’t always set out with specific transformational goals, the ease with which cloud-based solutions can leverage Big data, Mobility, and the IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things), can result in a connected environment that enables more advanced applications than they had envisaged.

Almost two-thirds (65 percent) of those surveyed indicated that the cloud enables them to implement initiatives that increase plant or enterprise integration and enhance quality. Half said that cloud solutions make it easier to introduce new products. The result is a positive impact on many key business demands for manufacturers as this graphic from the study illustrates.

 2016 State of Manufacturing Technology Report

Image source 2016 State of Manufacturing Technology Report

The report predicts that incremental improvements in sensor and analytical technology will continue to deliver improvements in quality and efficiency, which will contribute to healthier enterprise performance.

IIoT Devices Making Connections

The study highlights how smart devices are being deployed to improve manufacturing processes and business outcomes. Examples include,

  • Smart thermostats and energy control devices that can improve safety and control energy consumption.
  • IP enabled tools that provide two-way communication between devices and systems, reducing errors and improving traceability.
  • Sensors that monitor materials and product handling, quality control, and equipment maintenance.

The use of low power Bluetooth devices grew 40 percent year-on-year with almost four in ten respondents reporting that they leverage such devices. Half of all surveyed organizations reported that they deploy smart sensors with wired or wireless connections. The result is that more and more manufacturers have access to real-time data that has the capacity to better inform decision makers. This graphic from the study highlights the types of connected devices that are most prevalent in todays manufacturing processes.

2016 State of Manufacturing Technology Report

Image source 2016 State of Manufacturing Technology Report

With some 98 percent or respondents noting that, connectivity is “somewhat or very valuable to their business”, and as connectivity becomes standard in new equipment and devices, the move towards a fully connected IIoT driven manufacturing environment is inevitable.

Manufacturing Mobility Driven by Consumer Devices 

Consumer mobile devices are driving mobility in manufacturing, giving IT managers access to low-cost, flexible options without sacrificing standards or security according to the study. Manufacturers report that they have been deploying Apple (70 percent) and Android (56 percent) devices, while almost two-thirds (64 percent) report using consumer tablets. A ten percent decline in the use of laptops in the manufacturing workforce was reported from 2015 to 2016.

2016 State of Manufacturing Technology Report

Image source 2016 State of Manufacturing Technology Report

Mobile workers are likely to become the standard in the future according to the report, resulting in the development of specialized cloud base applications. Smart connected devices are likely to become increasingly common, including drones, wearables, and 3D printers (more than a quarter of respondents said they are already using these in their operations). Interestingly, given the much-publicized withdrawal of Google from the technology, almost a third (32 percent) expect to be able to leverage smart glasses within the next five years.

Big Data Delivering Manufacturing Insights 

The increasingly connected nature of manufacturing is giving organizations better access to relevant, real-time data with the result that the use of Big Data analytics is on the rise. Nine out of every ten respondents (up from 81 percent in 2015) said that they had seen improved mobile access to data. Meanwhile almost three-quarters (73 percent) indicated that cloud solutions had enhanced their level of insight into their business.

By connecting previously isolated equipment and processes, sensor and cloud technologies are allowing manufacturers access to enterprise wide data that can better inform the decision making process across the whole organization. The study cites the example of how that works in practice for Quatro Composites, manufacturers of composite structures for the aerospace, industrial, and medical markets.

“The company relies on cloud ERP to collect “as much data as possible,” like parts specifications or materials information, and centralize that data so it is visible across the entire company. With greater visibility into customer trends, and even into individual customer’s buying patterns, the company can identify and address market trends as well as grow business opportunities with existing customers.”

With 40 percent of respondents indicating that they will have deployed, or will be planning the use of Big Data analytics this year, manufacturers are clearly recognizing the potential benefits that a more connected and data driven approach can offer.

The New Manufacturing Workforce 

Traditionally manufacturing may have been viewed as a dirty, repetitive, and insecure environment to work in. As the study points out, that is generally no longer the case, with the modern manufacturing floor offering a much more dynamic and varied career to the workforce. Despite that the number one barrier to company growth cited by respondents remained as a shortage of skilled workers for the second consecutive year.

According to the study the modern manufacturing worker profile is “a unique blend of technologist, maker, and problem-solver.” The most important skills for the next generation workforce were defined as:

  • Skills related to lean manufacturing. (A concept of continuous improvement with its roots in Japanese car manufacturing.)
  • Data analysis—with such large amounts of data available organizations need to have people with the skills to produce actionable insights.
  • Mechanical engineers that can lead design innovations for today’s ever more sophisticated production equipment and processes. This increasingly includes specialties such as robotics and autonomous vehicles.

Some larger organizations are already promoting manufacturing jobs as high-tech careers opportunities. The report suggests that many other manufacturers could benefit by offering better-designed career management programs, to attract a new generation of workers who see innovation and technology as key elements in their job roles.

I believe our education system also has a responsibility in this respect. No matter how many high-tech career opportunities might be out there, unless we can produce candidates with the right skills to fill them, especially in the STEM subjects, progress in manufacturing may stall.

The manufacturing industry has seen increasing adoption of technology over the last few years. The study concludes that cloud solutions are now proving to be the catalyst for further innovation, building a framework that enables the integration of IIoT, big data analysis, and increased mobility across their entire operations.

As manufacturing becomes ever more connected and integrated, companies that can harness these new technologies are most likely to be those that can stand out from the crowd.

If you are involved in the manufacturing sector how have you seen technology changing the way your business operates? I would love to hear your thoughts.

You can find out more about this report at 2016 State of Manufacturing Technology Report (registration required).

Photo Credit: randolphstair Flickr via Compfight cc

Shelly Kramer

Shelly Kramer is a 20+ year marketing veteran and CEO of V3 Broadsuite, a marketing consultancy, and the President of Broadsuite Media Group. She’s a business strategist focused on B2B digital transformation, and delivering integrated marketing solutions for clients. She’s an expert at omnichannel marketing, content strategy and execution, connecting social media to business initiatives, and helping clients leverage the web for growth and profitability.