Male employee uses digital transformation technology in a manufacturing warehouse.

3 Ways Tech is Changing Manufacturing


Digital transformation continues to influence the manufacturing industry. Here are three ways tech is changing manufacturing.

The digital transformation that continues to reshape every aspect of society is also changing the manufacturing industry. Companies looking to maximize the potential of tech have begun to invest more in emerging technologies like cloud computing, advanced analytics, blockchain and virtual reality. Those technological trends promise to transform the manufacturing industry, as evidenced by the following real-world applications of these technologies.

Industry 4.0 Gains Momentum

Industry 4.0 is a catch-all term that describes a suite of technologies associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution—specifically, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), AI/machine learning, advanced robotics, cloud computing and advanced analytics. These technologies were already gaining ground in the manufacturing industry before the disruptions of 2020 demonstrated the need for new approaches to every aspect of business operation.

Today, manufacturers are increasingly seeking digital solutions to address immediate needs and position themselves for the future. A July 2020 survey by McKinsey found that, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, 39% of manufacturing executives have established a "nerve center approach" to improve transparency of their supply chains. In addition, 25% are ramping up automation programs to address the worker shortages brought on by the pandemic.

What do real-world applications of Industry 4.0 technologies look like?

1. Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) Promotes Efficiency

Manufacturers looking for ways to increase operational efficiency are increasingly looking to IIoT. For example, a case study from the consultancy, Cognizant, details its partnership with a manufacturing and logistics company to streamline and modernize its vehicle monitoring process. Cognizant customized framework that allowed the company to capture messages about the health of each of its vehicles. Providing a customized view of a vehicle’s overall condition (e.g., fuel level, mileage, service required) resulted in a 400% increase in vehicle monitoring capabilities and 5000+ messages captured.

2. Using Advanced Analytics to Improve Operations and Spur Innovation

Using data collected from IIoT devices, manufacturing companies are tapping advanced analytics—the systematic analysis of large volumes of data—to discern patterns and trends affecting their operations, with an eye to increasing productivity, efficiency and quality.

Bosch Automotive Diesel System Co., (RBCD) Ltd.’s implementation of advanced analytics in its Wuxi, China, factory is a case in point. The company has embedded sensors in its factory machines that enable the collection of vast amounts of data. This enables real-time analysis on the machine’s condition, allowing RBCD to more easily identify and eliminate output losses and anticipate machine disruptions before they happen. Says Stuart Brown, director of Technical Function at RBCD, “Having this data connectivity with our machines allows us to react much more faster, be more agile with regards to changeovers, our maintenance time, our breakdown reactions, and with these technologies, we can get much greater insights in these pain points, and that has allowed us to maintain the output that’s required.”

As companies like Bosch Automotive leverage data more and more, it’s become increasingly difficult to store that data for easy use. Enter cloud computing, which allows manufacturers to store data on remote servers instead of developing complex and costly in-house data storage.

Volkswagen’s partnership with Microsoft to develop the Volkswagen Automotive Cloud is one example of how manufacturers are using cloud computing to store and harness data. A 2019 article previewed the partnership, stating, “By allowing vehicles to tap into Microsoft’s remote computer processors via the cloud, VW can offer its customers personalized on-board media streaming, and make suggestions for parking and charging.”

3. Advanced Robotics Powers Productivity

While robots have been used in manufacturing for decades, the emergence of advanced robotics is giving this technology new momentum in the manufacturing industry. Collaborative robots (“cobots”), in particular, are designed to partner with workers, assuming repetitive and dangerous tasks and freeing workers to focus their efforts elsewhere.

At shipping giant DHL, Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) are used to locate, track and move inventory in warehouse facilities. AMRs work alongside warehouse workers, adapting, learning and sharing the most efficient travel routes.

Digitizing Supply Chains

Given the supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic, it’s no surprise that organizations across all industries and sectors are looking to digital solutions to bridge gaps. Taking the leap to a digitized supply chain takes time and planning, but there are numerous benefits, including greater transparency and increased responsiveness.

CPG powerhouse Procter & Gamble, for example, has shifted its approach to demand planning, supporting its planners with machine learning algorithms that automatically adjust demand for new products, alterations in store strategies and seasonal shifts. This approach makes planning—and the supply chain processes it supports—more agile.

Along with digital solutions for planning, blockchain is another tool that has the potential to accelerate supply chain digitization. Perhaps best known for its use in recording cryptocurrency transactions, blockchain—or distributed ledger—is a digital record of transactions that allows them to be stored and validated with multiple computers on the Internet, instead of being stored in one central location. At a time when manufacturers are looking to build greater transparency into their supply chains, blockchain may be one of the ways forward.

In a recent whitepaper, digital transformation consultancy Infosys commented on the value of blockchain for building resilient supply chains, stating, “The visibility of transactions that have multiple parties provides transparency and security. Once information is uploaded on blockchain, it cannot be changed, assuring immutability and trust. This becomes a keystone of a trustworthy digital supply chain.”

Giving transactions this durability and permanency also helps to mitigate provenance issues—especially in today’s climate of highly distributed supply chains—making blockchain a potentially vital component in shoring up manufacturing supply chains.

Virtual and Augmented Reality for Manufacturing are Now Real

Defined by the Virtual Reality Society (VRS) as a “three dimensional, computer-generated environment, which can be explored and interacted with by a person,” virtual reality (VR) enables a person interacting with a virtual environment to manipulate objects or perform a series of actions. While this technology hasn’t achieved widespread use, it is being deployed in manufacturing in a variety of ways.

Employee Training

Across numerous industries, VR is increasingly being used in employee training programs. CNBC has reported that several Fortune 500 companies, including Boeing and Walmart, are building VR into their employee education, with positive results.

For instance, UPS transformed a touchscreen-based training exercise for its truckers into a VR-based module that helps drivers spot potential hazards when "driving" down a virtual road. Speaking to CNBC, UPS training manager Laura Collings said, “Virtual reality has unlimited possibilities. We’re looking at every opportunity we can right now.” She added, “We find that [drivers] are ... learning the verbiage much faster, and it's the same verbiage they have to use when out on the road with their supervisor.”

Product Assembly

Within manufacturing, VR is also being used for more accurate product assembly. A recent report noted that the aerospace giant Lockheed Martin now uses VR technology to build the F-35. Engineers use VR glasses to build parts for the plane. According to Lockheed, VR technology has resulted in accuracy up to 96%.

Remote Maintenance

For manufacturers looking to proactively maintain equipment, VR/AR may be key to this process. VR/AR allows technicians to perform equipment maintenance from a remote location, an option that is especially relevant given current physical distancing requirements.

Using AR, workers can project instructions directly onto the machine parts they’re working on, eliminating the time it would take to track down an instruction manual. Additionally, for more complex repairs, a non-local subject matter expert can be contacted to provide troubleshooting guidance by simulating the actions the worker needs to take.

Worker Safety

VR can also be successfully applied to enhancing worker safety. Allowing workers to walk through digitally simulated scenarios can help manufacturers understand workers’ real-time reactions in both everyday and emergency scenarios, as well as identify potential dangers. For example, using VR for worker training, Ford Motor Company has already reduced employees’ injuries by 70%.

Thinking Strategically to Leverage New Technology

New technologies continue to transform manufacturing. From the Industrial Internet of Things to virtual reality, these technologies are helping manufacturers operate more efficiently and innovate quickly to meet changing customer expectations. Businesses looking to maximize the potential of these new technologies will need to take a strategic approach, determining which tech best fits their needs and how to integrate technology with their existing processes.

Share this Article