Five Manufacturing Tech Trends in 2021 and Why They Are Critical

An Industry Impacted by COVID-19

Disruptive. Urgent. Necessary. Those words describe a lot of industries on the heels of the pandemic who are shifting from reeling in 2020 to recovery in the back half of 2021. However, manufacturing was hit hard. Due to COVID-19, employee safety concerns forced manufacturing operations to deal with a compromised labor force from nationwide stay-at-home orders. With fewer people to do any work, operational pauses grinded much of the industry to intermittent halts. This slowdown was compounded by a supply chain that was severely severed; leaving owners and managers scrambling to source the basic materials needed to move their product down the line. On top of that; the price for those materials continued to soar and projecting demand was a moving target. 

However, according to a recent survey by NAM, manufacturing activities remain robust in 2021, with the U.S. and global economy continuing to rebound from their declines in 2020. In the third quarter of this year, production has exceeded pre-pandemic levels and the overall outlook for the manufacturing industry remains positive in spite of the challenges. But it’s not enough. Like other industries, manufacturing is seeing demand skyrocket, but they need the resources to answer the call. Along with rising costs, the NAM survey pointed out that the other top challenges in the third quarter include the inability to attract and retain a quality workforce (80.0%), supply chain challenges (79.8%), transportation and logistics costs (69.1%) and rising health care and insurance costs (52.2%). Where can this industry offset those cost upticks, attract valued candidates, and efficiently speed up their overall production cycle? Technology. And the future is very exciting. 

“I’m Sorry, Dave.” 

Robots are a part of the workforce and they are getting smarter. Fortunately for us, they are not murderbots in outer space refusing to open the pod bay door circa 2001 (nice job, HAL). Robots–more specifically, cobots–are changing the overall landscape of robotic technology in manufacturing. Collaborative robots, or cobots, are the same as traditional industrial robots with a mechanical arm that is programmed to perform repetitive tasks in a factory setting. However, cobots are designed to be in close proximity to their human counterparts in an entirely safe setting. The cobots handle the majority of tasks like material handling, assembly, quality inspection, and packaging while employees focus on tasks that require finite dexterity and cognitive flexibility. Cobots make real-time, complex decisions and are deployed to complement their human coworkers, increase productivity, and save money over the long run. 

Walmart is rolling out a version of cobots at 25 of their regional distribution centers to increase drive speed and efficiency through warehouse automation. According to Joe Metzeger, executive vice president of supply chain operations at Walmart:

This system uses a complex algorithm to store cases like puzzle pieces using high-speed mobile bots, operating with a precision that speeds the intake process and increases the accuracy of freight being stored for future orders. By using dense modular storage, it also expands building capacity. And by using high-speed palletizing robotics to organize and optimize freight, it creates custom store- and aisle-ready pallets, which take the guesswork out of unloading trucks.

This game-changing technology is just one way to enhance the day-to-day efficiency of any operation while equipping employees with new areas to thrive.

The World is Not Flat

3D printing isn’t a new technology. In fact, it’s been around for four decades. Instead of cutting a needed part from a block of material, 3D printing is additive manufacturing that creates components by stacking layer on layer from materials like composites, metals, plastics or fine powders. 3D printing allows manufacturers to create things that traditional methods can not, and it operates with sustainability at the core because this process requires fewer components with less waste to achieve the finished part. 3D printing is a great alternative to alleviate the strain on supply chains when demand surges. 

COVID-19 highlighted the value of 3D printing when the industry kicked into high gear to bolster the supply chain of critical goods in response to the medical industry’s needs during 2020. The 3D printing industry is working to reinvent itself to ensure they play a role in upcoming trends of design and manufacturing like the commercial jet industry’s move to develop hydrogen-powered jets that are zero-emission, climate-neutral aircraft. 3D printing’s agile, low-cost customization capabilities is firmly positioned to push the boundaries of innovation in any manufacturing industry. 

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution has progressed from water and steam-powered mechanized production to mass production using electricity to electronics and information technology facilitating automation in the 21st century. The fourth industrial revolution is witnessing the digital age making exponential leaps and bounds instead of small, incremental steps forward. Enter the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

IIoT is the use of smart sensors and actuators to enhance manufacturing and industrial processes. These “smart” machines use real-time analytics to drive business decisions fast and accurately. One critical component to IIoT is its ability to predictively diagnose problems or inefficiencies before they occur. Manufacturers can use this technology to predict when a machine needs maintenance and keep production lines operational, quality control in check, and the supply chain moving efficiently. 

The Industrial Internet of Things is expected to grow to $110.6 billion by 2025 and 73% of manufacturers plan to increase their investment in this smart technology over the next year. IIoT allows manufacturers to embed this technology into products to capture and analyze data points from the customer’s usage patterns so designers can continue to enhance future versions or updates and increase overall customer satisfaction. Additionally, these asset management systems will help manufacturers and suppliers track the location and condition of products. More importantly, it will update supply chain stakeholders with instant updates if the goods are damaged or at risk of becoming damaged to create a redemptive opportunity before the customer is aware of any negative circumstance. 

The Changing Structure of Infrastructure

With the continued advancements of Industry 4.0, organizations need to ensure that their IT infrastructure is scalable, flexible, and adaptive to the new expectations of the workplace after the pandemic. With 90 percent of this workforce working remotely by 2023, IT services have to maintain operational continuity–regardless of external factors–and business leaders have to optimize their infrastructure to prioritize new technologies, cloud-based alternatives, no-touch maintenance, and service-based solutions. The upside is an IT system that reduces costs, is fast and efficient to accommodate the needs of staff, and benefits the daily procedures of any on-site support staff. 

Wait, Are We in the Matrix?

According to a 2020 manufacturing report by Deloitte, employment in manufacturing declined by 1.3 million (more than 10 percent of total manufacturing employment) in April of 2020 and wiped out 10 years of manufacturing gains. Add the new workplace standards of social distancing and remote work to that decline and any c-level exec will experience the strain when sitting next to their hiring manager to say, “so what’s the plan?” The plan is to reinforce your gold-star employees’ abilities with human-centric AI. 

Learning from human input and collaboration, human-centric AI provides an effective experience between humans and robots based on algorithms created from existing human-based systems. The AI defines steps to continuously improve daily workflows and processes to push the boundaries of what was not thought possible. Human-centric AI does not replace humans. Instead, it recognizes the operator’s strengths and skills, adds it to the knowledge base, and creates a process that is informed, reliable, and scalable. Investments in this type of human-centric technology enhances productivity and drives greater ROI through experience-driven, sequential decision-making while the AI employs the algorithms to explore all possible scenarios. 

Exponentially Unlimited

Gone are the days of “it’s just the way we do things.” Digitalization has accelerated every area of day-to-day processes, and the companies that invest in these technologies are making the choice to fill the supply gap, complement remote workers, maximize operational efficiencies, and focus on new-found priorities. The demand for manufacturers to take on a significant digital transformation was going to happen with or without the pandemic. Those that stay ahead of the curve will stabilize their core offerings and realize ROI much sooner. 

The digital world presents unlimited possibilities for automation, processing power, storage, and knowledge. Cobots, 3D printing, IIoT, enhanced IT infrastructure, and human-centric AI are the tip of the iceberg. Breakthroughs in technology are happening around the globe in autonomous vehicles, space travel, nanotechnology, energy storage, and quantum computing. Manufacturers need to partner with orgs that can ask strategic questions to help them align with these new technologies in an impactful way. This is how forward-thinking companies will navigate uncertainties, reap the benefits of those investments, and position their entire operation for long-term growth and future success. 

Because that’s where we are, the future.

Let Us Help

Technology Consulting is the Software Development-as-a-Service division of Bitwise Industries that specializes in custom software development, managed services, and Salesforce implementation. Our technology professionals have deep experience applying cutting-edge technology solutions to help manufacturing entities of all sizes navigate the technology landscape to find solutions to optimize their operations.

If you’re interested in uncovering the tech possibilities available to your organization, click this link to schedule some time with one of our experts. 

This post was written by Jeff Rickels, Technical Writer for Bitwise Industries. When he’s not writing, he’s thinking about the word Worcestershire. Close your eyes and say that word like you normally do. Then come back and say this word out loud while you read it. It doesn’t make sense, right?