Industry 4.0 has been budding over the last decade and has a long way yet to mature, however, the onset of the Covid-19 global pandemic has presented a suite of challenges and accelerated the need for solutions. The manufacturing industry has not had the flexibility of remote work to fall back on due to its dependency on onsite workers. Manufacturers will have had to make big changes to ensure the health of workers as they return to workplaces. At the same time, they’ve had to contend with the unpredictability of supply and demand, which could remain unstable for a prolonged recovery period. So how has this impacted manufacturing and what does this mean for the future?
Many of the solutions were already out there in the matrix of Industry 4.0, however the perception of them has changed from early-adoption techniques to necessary survival tools. Manufacturers are turning to connectivity, advanced analytics, AI and automation to tackle some of their biggest issues. For example, in 2017, end-to-end supply chain transparency was a buzzword building momentum. But in the times of Covid-19, transparent supply chains have become more of a necessity to be able to respond to volatile supply and demand and build resilience.
Manufacturers need to increase productivity, efficiency and resilience to navigate these times, and those who make it out the other side will rush to reinforce their businesses using data, AI and the industrial internet of things (IIoT) to protect against potential future situations. The bi-product of this is that the industry as a whole will have gone through a transformation in a short space of time that would otherwise have taken years to transpire. In the long run, these advances put the industry in an optimal position for growth.
Disruption to innovation
While the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of existing solutions, it has also been a catalyst for innovation in the sector. Manufacturers are always looking for innovative ways to gain a competitive advantage through reducing turnaround times, lowering outages, and the like. The role of innovation becomes even more vital in times of crisis and in response to new challenges.
The UK government recognises the importance of manufacturing, and innovation within, in advancing the economy. Even before the pandemic, the government was aiming to be “a global industrial leader in creating, adopting and exporting advanced digital technologies, shaping how the world does business” by 2030. Initiatives such as Made Smarter and the Manufacturing Made Smarter challenge have been set up to help boost net-zero emission technology and enhance productivity by 30%. Currently in round 2, the challenge promises a minimum investment of £147 million in proposals that include:
- artificial intelligence, machine learning and data analytics
- additive manufacturing
- robotics and automation
- virtual reality and augmented reality
- the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and connectivity.
Bringing production home
With uncertainty over supply chains and availably of resources, while reliance on offshore production has been a profit inflating tactic of the past, it’s now a hindrance to a suite of operations. Bringing production home can simplify the supply chain, reduce independence on other countries and increase resilience, which is currently more valuable than profits, though these costs are buffered thanks to developments in automation.
The virtual shift
Although remote has been far less accessible to the manufacturing world, there are still valid use cases, whose adoption have also been accelerated. Based on the power of real-time data and AI-based insights, things like digital twins, remote diagnostics and predictive maintenance all contribute to a more hands-off approach, while presenting on-demand access to information and expertise.
Making the change
Some of these technologies may have taken years to saturate the market, but as manufacturers navigate their way through the pandemic and the aftermath, they have been forced to see the benefits or take on the risks far earlier. The rate of change will still vary as some turn to digitalisation as an immediate response, some as a recovery tactic, and others only after some economic recovery to reinforce their operations, but there is no doubt that the future has been brought forwards.
As a manufacturer, now is the time to be thinking about your digitalisation strategy. For help with integrating AI and automation into your products and services to save money and innovate faster, get in touch or check out our manufacturing resources to see what we can do for you.