Manufacturers, technology and the fourth industrial revolution

A look at some of the innovations and technology investment focus areas for today’s manufacturing industry

Worldwide spending on the technology and services enabling business and product digital transformation is forecast to surpass $1.1tn in 2018, with discrete manufacturing and process manufacturing expected to account for $333bn.

The data comes from global tech analyst group IDC’s latest Worldwide semi-annual digital transformation spending guide, which says these areas of the manufacturing world will spend the most on digital transformation and set the agenda for many priorities, programmes and use cases across industries.

From a technology perspective, IDC predicts that the largest categories of spending will be applications, connectivity services and IT services as manufacturers develop their platforms to compete in the digital economy. The main objective and top-spending digital transformation priority for those industries, according to the analyst, is smart manufacturing, such as material optimisation, smart asset management and autonomic operations.

Such investment priorities are being labelled by commentators as composites of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), driven by use of technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, sensors and big data. A report from Barclays Corporate Banking at the end of 2017, for example, surveyed 500 UK manufacturing decision-makers and found there is already a high rate of adoption when it comes to automation, such as robotics, but still limited investment in wider AI.

IDC expects discrete and process manufacturing to invest more than $115bn in smart manufacturing initiatives this year, in addition to $33bn in innovation acceleration and $28bn in digital supply chain optimisation.

This is part of a wider trend in a business world being disrupted by technological advancements, with IDC also identifying retail and construction as sectors set to spend “aggressively” to meet their own digital transformation objectives.

Robotics, automation, mixed reality and 3D printing

There are multiple examples of manufacturers investing in new systems to drive efficiencies and improvements in their operations.

Earlier this year, chocolate maker Mars unveiled new automated handling and robotics systems at its site in Boigny-sur-Bionne, France. The newly revamped facility, which is run by XPO Logistics, has given the company capacity to accommodate up to 10 million packages a year, with preparation and distribution quicker than before.

Supply chain company XPO worked alongside automated handling systems provider Alstef to introduce the technology for Mars, which also holds its pet care and food lines at the site.

Features at Boigny include a robot that can prepare 50,000 to 60,000 packages a day, and an automated storage and retrieval system which places the pallets in racks at high speed. One of the key features, according to Mars and XPO, is the robot’s articulated arm which, they say, can pick up five stacks of packages at once, enabling it to assemble pallets with multiple product codes.

One industry to be significantly disrupted by digital transformation in recent years is the mattress sector, exemplified by online-first companies such as Casper and Eve Sleep starting to take more market share from long-term incumbents. Emma Mattress is another new business in this space, and the company’s founder, Max Laarmann, says technological expertise in production and customer service are aiding its growth.

“We see that in our production, we can automate much more in terms of the cutting, gluing and the tacking process,” he says. “A lot of this has already happened and this will continue.”

Emma Mattress does not operate its own manufacturing facilities; instead, it relies on local partners in the UK and Switzerland, and one in Germany that serves the rest of continental Europe. Senior staff at Emma work closely with these partners for quality assurance and to continually check if there are opportunities for better API (application programming interface) connections or improved data flow in the product development process, says Laarmann.

“The fact that we are able to cut mattress production and delivery from five or six weeks plus to a few days without losing quality and saving a lot of money shows that new and innovative business models and lean systems can change an industry quite a bit,” he adds.

From chocolate and mattresses to automotive, manufacturers of all types are looking at ways to use technology to improve their product and general operations.

Read more about digital transformation

  • Computer Weekly looks at the lessons to be learned from General Electric’s bumpy ride to digital transformation.
  • A guide for executives in the public and private sectors on the myths, realities and best practice of digital transformation, by digital leaders who have been there and done it.

Car makers such as Volvo and Ford are working with Microsoft, using the tech company’s Hololens mixed reality technology, which is embedded into eyewear, to aid either the design process or the customer experience when making or buying a new vehicle. In Ford’s case, it is used during the design and manufacturing stage.

With Microsoft’s mixed reality capability, Ford can take a physical product and overlay new virtual concepts onto it during design, which the tech company says augments – rather than replaces – existing processes in Ford’s create and build stage. The idea is to speed up the step between design and manufacture, and the technology also offers a system on which to collaborate as Ford looks to bring new vehicles to market.

Craig Wetzel, design technical operations manager at Ford, says: “The Hololens helps me see 3D designs full-scale on top of production vehicles. We are developing apps for Hololens to be used within our production environment for designing cars in the near future.”

Meanwhile, in the sports car sector, 3D Systems revealed in June that Sauber Motorsport, the company that operates the Alfa Romeo Sauber Formula One team, is using its additive manufacturing technology as part of a strategy to drive innovation in its vehicles.

This is an extension of a partnership that began 10 years ago, when Sauber Motorsport first launched an additive manufacturing department at its base in Switzerland. At times, Sauber has used the 3D Systems technology to create 200-300 plastic parts in a day.

“When we decided to upgrade our stereolithography (SLA) production capability, we felt it was time to take our cooperation with 3D Systems to a deeper level,” says Christoph Hansen, head of additive manufacturing at Sauber.

“We are using 3D Systems’ SLA solutions predominantly and extensively for wind tunnel testing, but also for tooling for carbon laminating, as well as vacuum casting for silicon parts.” 

Digital transformation and manufacturing CIOs

The shift in focus within manufacturing, which is expected to see an increase in innovation and technological investment on the factory floor, will inevitably open up new responsibilities for CIOs in the sector.

Rob Pritchard, former CIO at global drinks company Britvic, whose brands include Robinsons, Fruit Shoot, Tango and Teisseire, says the switch of focus is already happening in the FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) sector.

“For a CIO of a consumer goods company, until four or five years ago, whatever went on down on the factory floor wasn’t a major concern,” he says.

“Microsecond stoppages on production lines and understanding what causes them, and all the data to see what’s really going on, can help drive micro gains and percentage improvements. This is all within the CIO’s remit now, as it provides a chance to lower the cost of manufacturing and build more margin into products.”

Pritchard says digital technology on the factory floor is hugely important for this sector and, unlike in previous generations, the scope of central IT is beginning to come from within the actual manufacturing process lines.

A recent report by Searchlight Consulting, which specialises in helping businesses – notably in retail and manufacturing – undergo IT-enabled change, drew attention to the key areas CIOs must consider as they ride the 4IR and digital transfomation wave washing over manufacturing.

The Searchlight study – The new era: making the most of technology – calls on manufacturing businesses to identify technology that can support their core functions but ensure that part of their organisation is dedicated to experimentation and trialling new systems that might provide a competitive edge.

From the interviews with senior manufacturing leaders, the report concludes that leadership teams must create a compelling vision for the wider organisation and bring the workforce along on the ride. Companies must make business-led technology investment decisions, it says, while data analysis is set to be increasingly important.

Bryan Oak, director of Searchlight, says: “Operational efficiency comes from making sure the back office, manufacturing and supply chain systems are suitable, alongside accessing more information from the factory floor in order to make the right decisions and use this data to improve the way they deliver their business.

“Beyond the factory floor, the innovation dimension either comes from the way they embed technology in their products, or the way they use technology to enhance the customer service and the customer experience in both their selling and support of products after sales.” 

Start of a journey

Although the phrase “fourth industrial revolution” conjures up vivid images of a dramatic change in landscape for global manufacturing, the truth is perhaps more nuanced.

IDC’s Worldwide semi-annual digital transformation spending guide indicates that, although there are some leaders in each sector, many organisations, including those in the manufacturing industries, are just beginning an era of digitisation. This is based on the report’s findings that some of the strategic priority areas with lower levels of spending this year include building cognitive capabilities and data-driven services.

Craig Simpson, research manager at IDC’s customer insights and analysis group, says: “This suggests that many organisations are still in the early stages of their digital transformation journey, internally focused on improving existing processes and efficiency.

“As they move into the later stages of development, we expect to see these priorities, and spending, shift toward the use of digital information to further improve operations and to create new products and services.”

This was last published in June 2018

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