Shaping the Future

As Manufacturing Goes Digital, Where Will It Take Us?

Robotics, artificial intelligence, real-time data: Industry 4.0 has us looking at the COVID-19 pandemic’s hard reset as a chance to grow stronger, more resilient and open to innovation.

Engine maker Rolls-Royce has miniature robots 3/8-inch in diameter for predictive maintenance inside the combustion chamber of its engines. These nanobots carry small cameras giving live video feedback to the operator, for a quick visual inspection of the engine without having to remove it from the aircraft.

Airbus engineers use augmented reality (AR) to superimpose a virtual image of the fuselage assembly design over the built product to detect any flaws.

Caterpillar’s Marine Division is saving $400K per ship per year after machine learning analyzed data on how often hulls should be cleaned for best efficiency.

The message is clear: there’s no going back to business as usual.

Smart technology is changing manufacturing in a big way, helping companies to differentiate themselves in the market while they work to drive down costs and protect margins. Post-pandemic survival and recovery in the sector will have a lot to do with digital transformation.

Are we ready?
Right now, many non-essential manufacturers have pivoted their operations in response to the pandemic to manufacture much-needed PPE, masks and ventilators. These businesses have used AR technology for digitized training programs to quickly re-skill and up-skill their workforce to make it happen.

Now AR-enabled remote assistance is being used for detailed interactions between onsite personnel and offsite experts via a live video feed, for example, as factories restructure with fewer employees onsite for safety and social distancing.

Adopting technology has been critical and is clearly the way forward. With AR, 3D spatial notations on touchscreen devices can be layered over real-time video to show which specific machine or application components need servicing or attention.

And we’re seeing more use of robots – for welding and similar tasks – for their ability to squeeze into tight and dangerous places, like radioactive containment chambers, oil pipelines and underground mine shafts. Now they’re also on factory floors to manage machine and system maintenance.

Celebrate and connect
Come October, this year’s Manufacturing Day is one for celebrating and connecting – remotely. Manufacturing is the lifeblood of local, national and global economies. Without it, no goods land on store shelves. No direct-to-consumer companies exist. There would be no Amazon or Wayfair e-tail giants.

When the world changed with the cosmic pause-button of the pandemic, manufacturers had to find new ways to keep supply chains linked and running and plants operating safely. In the new dispensation they’re looking for shorter, simpler supply chains that can react faster in a crisis and help with sustainable production.

These businesses juggle the needs of inventory with the creation of goods, the employees it takes to produce them, and the freight costs and logistics required to get them where they need to go. No small feat.

The need to accelerate the economic recovery offers the opportunity to shake up legacy ways of doing business. Even CAMX, the Composites and Advanced Manufacturing Expo in September, has transformed into a completely virtual event for in-depth learning, demonstrations and Q&As on leading industry trends. It’s offering expert tips and insights on design and analysis approaches, sustainability in manufacturing, and applications for thermoplastic materials straight from the NASA Langley Research Center.

Attendees will learn how leading companies are using composites and advanced materials in new products and applications, like SAERTEX USA’s SAERfoam, a structural core material with 3D fiberglass bridges that is strong, light, easy to cut and resistant to moisture. It’s used for making auto floor and side panels, and sheer webs and shells for wind energy.

Along with more than 100 sessions and tutorials, there are also free webinars by experts on topics like technical components of composites, the many forms and shapes involved in tooling composite structures, and the digital thread that is driving connections from factory equipment to the internet and intranet capabilities of the Internet of Things.

What’s next?
So, what’s next for manufacturing?

As American economist Steven Moore put it, “The future of manufacturing is in technology. The next generation of manufacturing champions will come from those companies that use brain power, not labour, to drive their innovations.”

That brain power is expected to harness the best of technology and move it forward with new ideas and leadership.

Industry Week has reported on the “exponential generation of leadership.” Beyond millennials, this cohort, with birthdates starting around the turn of the millennium, is just beginning to populate college campuses and technical schools around the country.

“They have never known a world without smartphones, the internet, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. Their knowledge of and capabilities with technology will easily surpass that of the millennials – and their skillsets and 21st-century leadership style will be needed to help U.S. manufacturers compete globally in the coming decades.”

Smart tech will change the way we live and do business faster than we think. Zoom meetings and Google Nest thermostats are just a taste.

A 2018 study by the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation (MAPI) talked about how the Internet of Things will affect manufacturing. Author Michael Mandel, chief economic strategist at the Progressive Policy Institute, sees the rise of ecommerce fulfillment centers and the digitization of distribution, spearheaded by Amazon, opening up ways for manufacturers to shift from a warehouse model to a more flexible distribution process.

He also forecast increased customization to come with robots and 3D printing, and the use of cloud computing that will help even small factories adopt new technologies. This “Internet of Goods” will pave the way for new business models for expanding the market and changing the geography of production.

A high-tech future
As Mandel writes in Forbes, “We’re going to see mass customization, the creation of networks of distributed factories close to consumers, the growth of manufacturing platforms that will challenge today’s tech giants, and a new source of jobs for tech-enabled workers.”

Just consider the looming shortage of skilled workers and how that might change in the digital landscape.

In September 2019, the National Association of Manufacturers reported a record 522,000 job posts went unfilled. The Manufacturing Institute predicts 2.4 million unfilled jobs over the next 10 years. How do you fill the growing skills gap?

While the U.S. administration has committed to training 1.86 million industrial workers in the next five years, many manufacturers need to increase the size of their workforce now. They’re looking to resume full-scale operations to recoup losses and get back on track, so new hires will require rapid training on machinery and processes, and returning workers may need training to manage new automated technologies that weren’t in place prior to the pandemic.

And the skill sets required in manufacturing are evolving. Basic programming and math skills have become a necessity for production workers, for example, to be able to program robots on the shop floor and computer numerical control machines, or to operate new human-machine interface software and other digital software.

Automation workers need to be more multi-dimensional and not just competent in a particular area like material handling or robotics. The smaller, more localized factories to come will need workers who are flexible and can manage different workloads.

One verity: keep learning
On the flip side of new tech skills, manufacturers also need to boost competencies in traditional skills like PLC programming and control system troubleshooting. As the aging workforce retires, decades of knowledge go out the door.

There’s plenty underway to shift the dynamics. Vendors and educators are developing curricula at the high school and college level through partnerships with industry and universities.

For one, Yaskawa Motoman and the Robotics and Advanced Manufacturing Technology Education Collaborative (RAMTEC) have established the Ohio Manufacturing Workforce Partnership. The partnership is working to create a curriculum aligned with STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and training in Industry 4.0 technologies.

And companies like Rockwell Automation are delivering online e-learning to give employees flexibility for training and reskilling.

Maybe the road ahead really is about understanding the challenges and rising to them. As Steve Jobs famously said, “If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution.”

Shaping the Future

Robotics, artificial intelligence, real-time data: Industry 4.0 has us looking at the COVID-19 pandemic’s hard reset as a chance to grow stronger, more resilient and open to innovation.

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September 29, 2020, 5:57 PM EDT