How Has Manufacturing Changed? The Decade in Review

There’s no doubt that manufacturing has slowly gone through something of a sea-change over the past decade. But how has manufacturing changed, exactly? There hasn’t been a single, highly visible change, as with the introduction of the assembly line, or the introduction of robots. But there have been a number of technological changes happening, mostly behind the scenes. These, taken altogether, have created a revolution in manufacturing.

The changes below reflect our own opinions, of course. Still, they represent big changes in manufacturing that will likely continue into 2020 and the next decade, supporting each other even while they drive new competition in this space.

#1: Resilient Supply Chains

Late in the previous decade, supply chain management became a hot topic as large manufacturers and resellers tried to smooth out the bumps and bruises that came with disruptions to their global supply chains

In this past decade, this concern has turned into a focus on supply chain resilience—that is, creating supply chains that can withstand both man-made and natural disruptions. While resilient supply chains might not be faster or leaner than alternatives, they are more able to stay up-and-running no matter what local conditions are like at any point in the chain.

Just how have supply chains grown more resilient? Better forecasting has played a huge role, thanks largely to advances in Big Data and monitoring technologies. As technology has improved, there is more visibility into supply chains and more rapid communication, which creates more flexibility. Redundant processes and real-time inventory management, along with good manufacturing practices, have also made supply chains more resilient.

Another way that supply chains are becoming more resilient is through the process of re-shoring. The previous few decades saw many processes off-shored to places where labor was cheaper. It didn’t take long for manufacturers to realize, however, that the added costs of dealing with disruptions, meeting quality standards, and keeping tight production schedules ate away at most of those savings. Supply chains were kept shorter and more secure simply by moving those processes back on-shore.

We predict that some manufacturers will continue to work on supply chain resilience in lock-step with global expansion through 2020 and beyond, while others will find ways to keep their supply chains shorter and more local. Either way, resilience will continue to be important into the next decade.

#2: Growing Automation

Automation has been one of the biggest and most publicized stories about how manufacturing has changed this decade. This is not because automation is new: Plants have been automating processes since at least the 1970s, if not before. What has changed is the mindset around automation.

In previous decades, automation was seen as something done to an entire process—say, a production line for automobiles. Robots were used to complete specific tasks that required moving huge parts, or that could be dangerous for humans to do.

Part of the pivot in the past decade has been seeing automation as something that could be done piecemeal; manufacturers began automating steps in circumscribed steps, not whole processes at once. This made automation much more economical, with break-even points coming in months, not years.

Another part has been using automation more for things like sensing, measurement, and process control. This has improved product quality and also paved the way for 24-hour manufacturing operations.

We predict that automation will continue to make inroads into manufacturing, especially in the U.S. and Europe. Automated plants will bring products to market faster, and with higher levels of quality, even as manufacturers introduce flexible processes for more “on-demand” manufacturing beyond the year 2020.

#3: AI and Big Data

We’ve already mentioned above how Big Data was affecting supply chain management. But it doesn’t just stop there. AI and Big Data are changing the ways in which manufacturers think about their plants, and even their business models as a whole.

One recent survey by Forbes Insights asked professionals in the automotive and manufacturing sectors about their view on artificial intelligence; 44% of respondents in that survey classified AI as “highly important” to manufacturing in the next five years, while almost half—49%—said it was “absolutely critical to success.” There’s no doubt, then, that manufacturing will continue to become “smarter” as it becomes more automated through 2020 and beyond.

But just what is AI being used for? Some applications over the past decade have included:

  • Real-time maintenance of equipment
  • Detecting and forecasting performance gradation
  • Computer vision for inspection and quality control
  • Optimization operations (for both machines and human workers)
  • Automatic machine calibration
  • Generative design
  • Market intelligence

Did you know we work with manufactures across the country?

#4: More Intelligent Robots

Having general AI tools to make a production line more efficient and less likely to break down is one thing. Actually incorporating those tools into robots on the line is another. While larger, bulkier robots still handle many manufacturing processes—especially ones that are dangerous, or that require great amounts of strength or precision—more and more robots are being designed to be smaller, more flexible, and more able to work side-by-side with human beings in complex manufacturing processes.

We predict that, as sensors become more fine-tuned and learning algorithms more complex, robots will be able to learn how to perform even the most skilled work, improving on-the-fly as they go. This will continue to make human workers more productive and minimize problems like error and fatigue. Managing and networking these robots, however, will continue to be a challenge for IT, and 2020 will bring more of the challenges into the spotlight.

#5: Environmental Sustainability

Even as segments of the population and the U.S. government expressed doubt about climate change, private businesses began to wake up to the possibility that extreme weather events may well be the result of a changing climate. These weather events have been extremely costly, and only promise to be more costly in the future. Businesses are now seriously asking how manufacturing affects the environment.

This is not just a “politically correct” or socially conscious consideration. Part of having a resilient supply chain—and a resilient business in general—is putting into place policies that avoid or prevent disruption to begin with. So, it only made sense that companies began to investigate their own impact on the environment and began seriously considering how to be more environmentally sustainable.

Sustainable manufacturing practices have included leaner material extraction processes, reduction of waste, recycling programs, shortened transportation routes, sourcing of sustainable materials (including sustainable packaging), leaner “real-time” inventory, and optimized business operations. We predict that the next decade will see more manufacturers making coordinated efforts to incorporate such practices into overarching “green” or “sustainability” initiatives spanning the whole organization.

#6: 3D Printing

Like many of the technologies listed here, 3D printing has been around for some time in one form or another. What changed is the range of practical applications of the technology. Previously, 3D printing could only make use of specialized plastics to create parts and products on-demand, using special printers. Now, it’s possible to create everything from small metal parts to electronics circuits to concrete bunkers. Even biological tissues can be “printed” for biotech applications.

What this means is that small batches of specialty parts (or products) can be produced rapidly, and to spec. This is quietly changing how manufacturers approach maintenance, customization, design, and more.

#7: Cloud Storage and Networking

From CAD software like CATIA, Inventor, and SOLIDWORKS to inspection software like FAIR and Mastercam, the manufacturing process is shot through with input from complex software. Even as this software improves, it is becoming less and less feasible to host that software locally in on-prem data centers. The need for 24-7 uptime, frequent updates, and shared information resources can easily outgrow in-house hardware, not to mention overwhelm IT teams.

That’s why the past decade saw more manufacturers coming up with “digital transformation” strategies and moving their applications to the cloud. This has had the benefit of putting the maintenance of hardware and infrastructure in the hands of dedicated professionals, freeing up IT teams to spend more time thinking strategically and innovating.

Indeed, the past couple of years have seen major automotive and manufacturing players form strategic partnerships with cloud providers and technology companies. We predict that those who do not do so will feel increasing competitive pressure from those that do.

If you are a manufacturer exploring how to use cloud platforms for your business, Avatara’s CompleteCloud solution provides everything necessary to make a seamless transition. In addition, we can help your business with things like IT support, disaster recovery, and cybersecurity, all while improving scalability and controlling costs. Contact us today to learn more.

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