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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »

Study Reveals Top Trends In Digital Manufacturing – Part 1

July 5th, 2018 by Jeff Rowe

A recent ‘‘Trends in Digital Manufacturing” survey, jointly conducted by SME, promoting advanced manufacturing technologies, and Plataine, a provider of Industrial IoT (IIOT) and AI-based manufacturing optimization solutions, shows key insights on plans for factory digitization.

This IIoT survey, completed by nearly 400 C-level manufacturing staffers from multiple industries including aerospace, automotive, furniture and chemicals, was designed to help advanced manufacturing managers prepare for the rapid advances in digital technology that are transforming factories. The survey reveals how factories intend to implement new digital technologies, which challenges are faced, and what benefits they envision.

Growth expectations were strikingly optimistic: the majority – 93 percent – of all respondents expect double or single-digit growth in the next year. Meanwhile, 84 percent of respondents reported they are already engaging in digital factory initiatives. These initiatives focused on four areas:
1. Digitization of manual and paper-based processes;
2. Supply chain collaboration;
3. Smart shop-floor sensors; and
4. Automation and robotics.

Top Digital Transformation Trends In Manufacturing (Source: Futurum Research)

Additionally, the survey defined a group of industry leaders: companies that expect double digit growth while also reporting exceptional quality standards. Industry leaders, who made up 24 percent of respondents, showed clear trends that set them apart. For example, 37 percent described their organization’s digitization level as “mostly digital” compared to 25 percent of the rest of the market.

When digital strategy was analyzed by tier segment, OEMs were discovered to be significantly more likely to invest in innovation than their suppliers. For example, 67 percent of OEMs are investing in digitization of manual or paper-based processes, compared to 21 percent or less in any other tier. When industrial companies were asked which business pain points they hoped Industrial IoT/Industry 4.0 could address in the future, five themes became clear.

The most popular, reported by 62 percent of respondents, was the hope that digitization could help increase manufacturing capacity.

Furthermore, firms reported on the challenges they face on the road to full digitization, mainly technical and organizational. Technical challenges center on the concern that factories do not have the necessary expertise to adopt advanced digital technology. Organizational challenges center on human resources, such as the staff training to manage the real-time data that streams from different sources.

“Understanding the challenges the manufacturing community faces, and their plans in adopting advanced technologies is critical to success,” said Jeff Krause, executive director and CEO, SME. “Surveys such as our Trends in Digital Manufacturing report give us a good sense of progress made, trends to look out for, and how much work still needs to be done.”

Avner Ben-Bassat, President and CEO of Plataine, added, “It is exciting, though not surprising, to learn that almost all respondents have plans to take digitization initiatives this year. Plataine is proud to have collaborated on this survey with SME, and to partner with leading organizations worldwide on their digital journeys.”

Digital Manufacturing Trends We See

While we agree with most of the above numbers, they represent pretty broad strokes when real digital manufacturing trends are considered. From our perspective, we see several positive trends occurring and one glaring negative one in these trends (that we’ll discuss next week):

Manufacturers Finally Embrace IoT

For the past few years we all have heard continuously and incessantly from a number of different sources that the Internet of Things (IoT) is the thing that will change everything and improve our lives in ways that are still unimaginable to us. That may be true, but relatively little attention is paid to the other side of the coin – what are some of the not so great things that could result from IoT? This darker side of IoT, of course, includes security, but how about data handling, infrastructure, privacy, and the inevitability of IoT companies going out of business. All of these issues are problems now and will only continue to escalate unless and until adequately addressed.

Believe me, I’m not alone with these concerns.

However, PTC is a prime example of a company that rightly realizes that “things” have evolved from just 3D objects to being smart and connected. These “things” are what PTC emphasizes in its IoT approach, as the new reality is a hybrid of the physical and digital — distinct, but inseparable. The “thing” and the customer’s roles are interchangeable, where one, the other, or both can act as the sensor. IoT also provides great potential for analytics and predictive behavior of products. This new reality comes down to technology platforms and enterprise applications that can provide business transformation, opportunities, and value.

Is PTC unique in this push for IoT? Hardly. Just about any industry you can name is showing increasing interest — hardware and software vendors, machine and medical device manufacturers — the list goes on and on, and we’re just in the initial phases of IoT platforms, but PTC is ahead of the curve on many fronts. Needless to say, PTC is far from alone on the IoT frontier.

It’s clear that the Internet of Things is here to stay. We’re in the midst of a huge burst of IoT ideas, but many of them are destined to fail, by being either too specific or too disconnected from the context of our lives to have true significance. The Internet of Things and big data are two sides of the same coin, and building one without considering the other is a guaranteed recipe for disaster – and this is exactly what I’ll cover next week.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that IoT is doomed and ultimately destined to fail. IoT progress to this point has been great and future potential is even greater. At this point, though, I just fail to see it as the panacea it is being made out to be by several over-zealous vendors. I’m certain, though, that IoT will continue to provide greater and greater things. I’ll continue to be a smiling skeptic until at least some of the concerns outlined above are resolved. That may never happen, but until then, I’m reserving total buy in, as I’m sure many prospective customers are also doing.

In a 2017 study by Boston Consulting Group, researchers found that discrete manufacturers and, to a lesser but still significant extent process manufacturers, will see three key drivers of IoT in the coming years:

Predictive maintenance: In 2018 more companies will save time and money as their IoT-enabled equipment undertakes self-maintenance and alerts managers to developments. Along with substantial material cost savings, this will reduce equipment downtime, maintenance planning time, and overall maintenance costs. In fact, as Deloitte recently predicted, this trend will “optimize maintenance tasks in real time, maximizing the useful life of [manufacturers’] equipment while still avoiding disruption to operations.”

Self-optimizing production:Imagine companies monitoring and optimizing production processes in real time through interconnected factories and supply chains, and initiating automated adjustments that enhance efficiency and limit waste. Over the coming year, more manufacturers will develop systems that will allow such production optimization.

Automated inventory management: Connectivity and smart warehouses will revolutionize the way manufacturers capture and utilize key data, including offering richer insights into the status of their inventory and supply chains. Businesses will track the location and the condition of their inventory in route and in the warehouse. This, in turn, will expedite response time, reduce too much or too little inventory, and enhance just-in-time production.

Collaborative Robots Contribute To Production

Robots come in many shapes, sizes, functions, and prices. One of the most interesting areas of robotics that I’ve followed for the past few years are known as collaborative robots.

A collaborative robot (cobot) is a robot designed to assist human beings as a guide or assistant in a specific task, whereas a “regular” robot is designed to be programmed to work more or less autonomously. Generally, a cobot  works collaboratively with a human and allows that human to perform certain operations successfully if they fit within the scope of the task and to steer the human on a correct path when the human begins to stray from or exceed the scope of the task.

Because cobots are relatively affordable, highly adaptable, and almost plug-and-play, small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are adopting this technology at rapid rates, and some analysts expect this segment will see massive growth in the next few years.

Historically, industrial service robots have been caged for a reason —  to keep humans safe and out of harm’s way. Collaborative robots are meant to safely leave the cage while doing tasks with humans. Collaborative robots come in all sizes and shapes and have integrated sensors and soft and rounded surfaces for safety purposes and to reduce the risk of impact and crushing. The biggest safety feature of collaborative robots is their force-limited joints, which are designed to sense forces due to impact and quickly react to negate potential damage.

Collaborative robots can be placed alongside humans in small-spaced assembly lines, because they are affordable and easily trainable, and because they are flexible to handle short runs, repetitive and boring jobs, and ergonomically challenging tasks.

Today, the market for cobots is wide open, but current uses for cobots include machine tending, material handling, assembly tasks, and packaging; although they also pick and place components, count, and inspect.

These are just a couple of the trends we see occurring in digital manufacturing. Next week we’ll discuss some of the other major trends.

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