As the final part of our ongoing look at IT trends in various sectors, we turn our attention to the manufacturing industry. As is the case for the sectors already covered so far in this series, 2021 is set to go down as a pivotal year in the evolution of information technology within manufacturing.
While the focus will predominantly be on 3D printing, there are all kinds of technological advancements set to make both immediate and long-term impacts on how we produce items in a post-COVID, Industry 4.0 world.
So, without further ado, let’s look at the top seven IT trends of 2021 within manufacturing.
#1: 3D Printing
You might be surprised to learn that 3D printing technology (also known as additive manufacturing) has actually been around for over 40 years. However, the advent of the pandemic has converged with considerable drops in 3D printing costs to help create a tipping point in terms of widespread adoption.
Because of the supply chain distribution of 2020, manufacturers turned to 3D printing to create lower-cost, higher-performing parts that can be manufactured closer to the customer, all while being more sustainable. Today, manufacturers can “print” on demand, meaning there’s no need to build and warehouse products.
3D printing is also transforming the expensive and time-consuming process of tooling. It no longer takes months for manufacturers to create the molds, jigs, and fixtures necessary for the mass production of items. Instead, they can all be rapidly created, extensively tested, reworked, and put into mass production—without needing the help of tooling companies based in Asia—within a mere matter of days.
For manufacturers of heavy and complicated machinery such as vehicles or airplanes, this innovation is revolutionizing production and has helped mitigate the problems associated with offshore supply chains.
#2: Internet of Things (IoT)
While IoT had already been making inroads into the manufacturing world before 2021 (often referred to as industrial Internet of Things or IIoT), this year is set to mark an explosion in IoT utilization thanks to the events of the past 18 months.
By connecting dozens, or even hundreds, of unique devices, manufacturers can make informed, strategic decisions in real-time to improve efficiency, reduce costs, and enhance safety, to name but a few key performance indicators (KPIs). The ability for manufacturers to monitor and make changes remotely using IoT sensors has proven pivotal in managing manufacturing during the pandemic.
According to data gathered from the MPI Group, nearly a third (31%) of production processes now incorporate smart devices and embedded intelligence. Additionally, 34% of manufacturers have plans to incorporate IoT technology into their processes in the near future. The rush to incorporate this technology is, in large part, fueled by the need to predict when devices are about to fail, also known as predictive maintenance.
#3: Predictive Maintenance
If there was one thing that the pandemic did within the manufacturing realm last year, it was laying bare the costs of downtime in a production environment.
Some of the costs involved in shutting down production are eye-watering. For example, 98% of organizations say a single hour of downtime costs over $100,000, 81% of respondents indicate that 60 minutes of downtime costs their business over $300,000, and a record 33% of enterprises report that one hour of downtime costs their firms $1 million to over $5 million.
Thus, the impetus to ensure that all equipment operates at optimum capacity has reached a critical mass. No longer can a factory environment afford to have any minutes of unplanned downtime. The solution has appeared in the form of predictive maintenance.
The concept uses predictive analytics being supplied by IoT devices and later analyzed by artificially intelligent algorithms to spot patterns indicative of upcoming malfunctions. By using the data to carry out critical preventative maintenance, companies can reduce or even eliminate unplanned outages. Better still, they can improve the usability of machinery for many years and even decades in some cases.
5G is set to permeate all industries and sectors this year, and manufacturing is no different. Companies will utilize this advance in cellular technology to provide the high-speed connectivity required for the above-mentioned technology, including IoT, AI, and 3D printing.
Over half of manufacturing companies have already admitted that they plan to incorporate 5G connectivity at some point during 2021; such is the demand for reliable, high-speed cellular connections.
In fact, the upcoming Industry 4.0 environment cannot exist without it. One of the key tenets of Industry 4.0 is the increasingly dispersed workforce, as AI-powered robots increasingly occupy factory floors. Here, real-time, superfast connectivity will be vital in ensuring operations continue to run smoothly in a low-head-count environment.
#5: Big Data
Closely tied to the implementation of IoT and rapid 5G connectivity is big data. The ability for companies to gather millions of bytes of data pertaining to their processes every single second will no doubt increase the importance of big data.
In many locations, every inch of the manufacturing space will shortly be covered in sensors delivering data back to the network and cloud infrastructure. Manufacturers recognize that it’s imperative to analyze those reams of data points in real-time to gather actionable and intelligent insights.
With the increase in cloud computing abilities and the adoption of machine learning algorithms, companies will be able to sort through billions of terabytes of data and gain a more comprehensive understanding of their businesses.
#6: Centralized Communications / Connected Workforces
During the pandemic, workforces were dispersed to various locations, with many switching to a remote working model. While front-line workers continued to come into production settings, most companies scrapped in-person meetings and shifted communication to video conferencing and other collaborative centralized software.
As a result, one of the biggest IT trends of this year will be companies centralizing their communication via unified communication tools to ensure that everyone involved in the manufacturing process remains connected, wherever they may be. Just under two-thirds of companies are set to adopt digital tools and software to centralize communication.
While the pandemic may have accelerated these changes, dispersed workforces are central to Industry 4.0. With a connected workforce, the physical location of employees will no longer matter. Employees will simply communicate digitally with one another and the machines they’re managing. There’s no need to wait for an in-person meeting to resolve production issues. Instead, one central message chain between all key stakeholders can reach a resolution in a matter of minutes.
#7: Increasing Supply Chain Resilience via Robust Digital Networks
It’s no secret that 2020 saw manufacturing supply chains thrown into chaos. Many plants had to shut down simply because they could not source the raw materials needed for production. Thus, as companies build back from the pandemic, building a robust, visible, and most importantly, a digital supply chain is one of the top priorities.
Once again, IT infrastructure and tools will help to achieve this outcome in several ways. For instance, creating a digital supply network (DSN) using AI and IoT-based technologies allows demand and supply planners to gain a real-time understanding of activities taking place across complex supply chains.
With a robust digital network and investment in collaborative tools with key suppliers, employees can predict disruption before it occurs, communicate with key stakeholders in real-time, and quickly find nearshore or in-house solutions in mitigation. This information-sharing delivered via digital networks will be a crucial feature of Industry 4.0 and will soon become commonplace among manufacturers of all sizes.
2021 Signals the Start of Manufacturing’s Shift to Industry 4.0
While the pandemic undoubtedly threw the manufacturing industry into turmoil, the process of building back better and more resilient than before has already begun.
Distributed, highly connected workforces and processes run by IoT-enabled devices that feed real-time data to artificially intelligent programs to deliver vital insights represent the new normal. Those advances, of course, will rely on connectivity improvements in both structured cabling and cellular technology such as 5G.
At NCS, we can design, install, and deploy a broad spectrum of networking solutions to help you incorporate these game-changing technological advances. Our expertise includes structured cabling, wireless network infrastructure, and in-building 5G connectivity, to name but a few.
We are well-versed in delivering fiber optic solutions in industrial environments and can assist in the planning, design, and installation of new digital network infrastructure and communications solutions.
So, no matter how you plan to futureproof your manufacturing processes, speak to a member of our expert team about upgrading your IT infrastructure today.