Industrial manufacturers tend to be conservative when implementing new technologies, a stance which has historically made sense. They typically want to ensure that they maximize the functional life expectancy of their equipment in order to extract the maximum value, with some equipment in use for 5, 15, or even 30+ years. In addition, the equipment they use is often highly specialized and purpose-built, which can make it very expensive. This combination of pressures makes companies reticent to introduce changes until they’ve squeezed every last drop of value from their system.
But as technology evolves, this conservative mindset appears to be shifting. Manufacturers are starting to embrace digital transformation and intelligent systems because they are realizing what a new approach, and new technologies, can really do for them. This development could be called the “Teslafication” of modern manufacturing.
Tesla has demonstrated the benefits of using technology to collect customer feedback, understand their needs, adapt their offerings, and deliver updates to improve the customer experience — all very quickly. Personalization and the ability to adapt quickly to your customers’ needs are becoming more valuable in all sectors, and manufacturing companies don’t want to be left behind.
So how are companies making this shift? We asked industrial manufacturing leaders in Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States how they are adopting their facilities to meet modern demand. These are the top five things these industrial leaders are doing to get ahead of the curve.
Maximizing bang for buck
Understanding the return on investment (ROI) is always important, but just focusing on equipment cost and longevity isn’t enough, which became clear when we looked at which technologies are being deployed and why. We first determined the key initiatives our research subjects were most engaged in (optimizing the supply chain, innovation, enhanced time-critical control, remote control/operations, and optimizing non-time-critical control, in that order). We then sought to understand which technologies they were deploying now and which they expected to deploy in the future. Not every technology applied directly to each initiative, so the ranking was determined by the number of times selected per the number of times presented. The top technologies were:
- 5/5 Analytics
- 4/4 Artificial intelligence
- 4/4 Autonomous/collaborative robotics
- 4/4 Machine/equipment diagnostics
- 4/5 Digital twins
Clearly, the ability to gather and process intelligence from your systems is a good place to start when selecting technologies.
Choosing their connectivity carefully
There is a lot of buzz about 5G these days, and considering some of the features 5G will provide, it’s easy to understand the enthusiasm. With ultra-low latency, high bandwidth, and enhanced security, a 5G-based intelligent edge has the potential to provide the infrastructure for a fleet of modern, connected industrial robots that can deliver flexibility and agility that legacy equipment could never achieve. When we asked survey respondents about connectivity preferences, 5G was the clear choice above other options such as Private LTE and Wi-Fi 6.
The rollout of 5G wireless technology, with its strong focus on machine-type communications and support for the industrial internet of things (IIoT), is expected to have an outsized impact on automation and control applications. Unprecedented reliability and very low latency add to the basic potential of industrial 5G in manufacturing, even though the main technology building blocks and implementation challenges haven’t been fully resolved. For example, one concern is the difficulty of ensuring that 5G will work inside buildings where signal drop can be significant. But for every problem identified, solutions are being quickly developed. Some interesting “in-building 5G” solutions are emerging that use small cell millimeter wave (mmWave) technology and combine the ultra-wideband of 5G with private multi-access edge computing (MEC) and a private network core. These solutions are being deployed in office facilities now and will look to deploy in other settings where robots may live, such as manufacturing facilities, fulfillment warehouses, and so on.
Optimizing for their technology
Our respondents told us what they think are the most important measures for the technologies overall, and #1 was security. We have yet to see a survey that doesn’t rank security as the most important factor for just about any category. Connectivity ranked a close second (see the preceding section), followed by high availability. So: secure it, connect it, and keep it running. Pretty straightforward. After these basics, the next priorities are bandwidth, as those connected machines are going to need to collect and process a ton of data; scalability, to allow them to adapt to the ebb and flow of processing needs; and low latency, in order to keep those machines responsive.
Put the pedal down and don’t let up
More than 70% of our survey respondents are engaged in all five of the process improvement initiatives listed earlier. Their transition is happening now; it’s already begun. But fully reaping the benefits of a highly available, ultra-low-latency intelligent edge is going to come in phases over the next five years.
Since 5G is the most anticipated technology and people seem to have the highest expectations for it, we inquired about current level of adoption and upcoming timelines. Thirty-six percent of respondents are “adopters” who plan to use 5G in the very near future as a connectivity solution across the programs they are implementing; 35% fall into the “tester” category and expect to use 5G on a handful of technologies; and 29% don’t intend to use 5G across their technologies at all in the near term.
Of those respondents who see 5G in their future, 50% say they expect to adopt 5G-enabled technologies within the next 12 months, 60% in the next two years, and a full 81% expect to adopt 5G within the next five years. The fact that such a high percentage of this typically conservative crowd expects to adopt this new technology so quickly suggests the degree to which they are looking to accelerate their digital transformation.
Preparation is the key to success
It’s one thing to anticipate a fully automated factory with connected autonomous robots driving increased production and lower cost; it’s another thing to actually implement one. There are considerable barriers. Of the leaders we spoke with, 35% understand the need to upgrade or re-engineer legacy systems, while 33% identified their companies as lacking internal skills or knowledge. Business leaders need to invest in both areas in order to succeed. Re-engineering of tools, processes, and people drives the need to start planning sooner than later — the barriers are surmountable with proper planning.
In contrast, the barriers that ranked lowest in the survey — i.e. they were least likely to be perceived as barriers — included “none of our competitors seem to be using these technologies” at 18%, which tells us that competitors are using these technologies, so it is not the case that they are seen as risky due to being unknown quantities. “Too high a risk” came in at 17%, so fear is not an obstacle. And, actually, 12% selected “None of the above” (no barriers expected).
It’s happening now
Technology advancements in manufacturing are happening now and building up a new intelligent edge. Manufacturing leaders are aware of this shift and are taking steps now down the path of digital transformation. They know it’s just a matter of how much and how soon more technology will be deployed in order to fully realize the benefits.