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Trends in Manufacturing for 2021

There are many myths concerning Industrial IoT (IIoT). Some manufacturers think they need to hire a data scientist to operate the equipment or that implementing IIoT will take a long time. However, the biggest myth is that choosing a new system is or should be a technical decision. Manufacturers should not implement new technology just because everyone else is doing it. Instead, they must focus on business needs and the technology that will solve those needs. Otherwise, manufacturers could be watching millions of dollars slipping away with no throughput to justify it. That said, manufacturers should not just turn a blind eye to new technology. The key is finding which technologies are out of development and ready to solve those business needs. Here are some proven technologies that will inevitably change manufacturing forever.

Committing to the Cloud

The first of these technologies is cloud computing. Although some manufacturers have been slow to adapt, Covid-19 has become somewhat of a catalyst that is pushing manufacturers towards smarter factories. One of the big benefits of the cloud is turning quality management systems and manufacturing execution systems into agile, conformable, and flexible systems while keeping the reliable reporting that manufacturers have come to know and depend on over the years. It is truly a beautiful thing. But the best part is that reliable reporting is going to be close to real-time. This means that manufacturers can now make better decisions with more confidence and accuracy. 

But there is a catch. According to Gartner, “traditional data centers will be dead by 2025.” They will be replaced by a faster technology called edge computing. In a nutshell, edge computing is just taking the centralized data centers and bringing them closer to the factories to reduce latency. This brings us back to the original question. What are the business needs for manufacturers?  Will centralized cloud computing be sufficient or should manufacturers wait for edge computing?

Capitalizing on Data with AI

The problem with collecting all that data on the Cloud or even Edge is the sheer amount of data that is collected. It would be humanly impossible and impractical to try to organize that data into useful information. That is where AI and machine learning become extremely important factors. These two technologies are what help manufacturers make sense of all that data. But sifting through data is not the only thing that AI can do. The human eye sometimes needs some help. AI can be programmed for use cases such as quality inspection. This not only reduces the number of defects on the production line but increases the company throughput in the long run.

As the use cases and autonomy begin to increase, manufacturers will be looking for AI that is capable of answering the question, “Why?” In other words, AI will begin to make choices for the manufactures and the manufactures will want good explanations. The year 2021 could start seeing humans and computers communicating on a level that has never been seen before. As exciting as new technology can be, not all AI is worth the investment. The real question is, what are the manufacturing needs or use cases that will actually bring an ROI to the business?

Creating Unique Solutions with 3D Printing 

When it comes to discussing topics that sound futuristic, 3D printing is definitely one of those topics. However, the future is here and has endless possibilities. The most common materials used for 3D printing are plastic, carbon, and rubber. Some applications are even made with metal printing. With 3D printing, manufactures are able to create conceptual designs and prototypes within hours. If a client has a unique need or problem, manufactures can conceptualize a tangible solution with the push of a few buttons. 

But to be honest, this technology has been around for a few years. What is really exciting is the ability for 3D printers to go beyond conceptualizing an idea to actually producing products that can be used outside of the factory. That said, 3D printing is not quite ready to take over mass production because the unit cost does not yet match the output. But that does not mean that unique, personalized customer solutions are not a viable use for this technology. Right now, businesses need to be asking themselves one question. Is 3D printing the solution to a business need or just a fun technology that is not quite ready for turning a profit?

Being Transparent with Blockchain

Most people are familiar with the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. However, the technology that gives Bitcoin its value is called Blockchain. In a nutshell, Blockchain technology securely records the origin and movement of a digital asset in a decentralized ledger. So how does this help manufacturers? The answer is transparency. Some possible use cases could be counterfeit detection, quality assurance, and asset tracking. But regardless of the use case, manufacturers will be able to build trust with clients and partners. There are three basic ways that Blockchain will increase transparency. The first is the fact that a Blockchain ledger has identical digital copies stored in multiple computers throughout the network. Secondly, no one person or company will be able to control blockchain creation. Thirdly, all the records written in the ledger are permanent and extremely difficult to change. In fact, to change a piece of data would take a coordinated effort from everyone in the network. 

Once the data has been submitted to the Blockchain, it is very secure, but that still assumes that the data being put into the blockchain is accurate. Although IoT devices are considered to be trustworthy, these devices are not always the only forms of input. Although blockchain technology is available and can change the way manufacturers see risk and security, it’s going to take some time to flush out all the kinks. Manufacturers need to start asking themselves if this trend is a right fit for their company or an unnecessary investment.

Supporting Factories with Cobots

Covid-19 has in some ways become a catalyst for new technologies. When manufacturers had to find more ways to increase social distancing, cobots began to appear on factory floors. Of all the technological trends manufacturers need to be keeping in mind for 2021, cobots are the most likely to become widely adopted. According to Business Wire, “Collaborative robots (cobots) will reach a marketing of $9.7 billion by 2025.” Although dark factories (human-free) are potentially the direction for future manufacturers, cobots are an exciting technology that is going to be around for a few years. 

Although cobots might sound like the opposite of IIoT, they are a huge step forward. The stage six cobot involves close human and robot interaction, but the robot is on a mobile platform and can be moved anywhere on the manufacturing plant. So the question comes back to the manufacturers who have not yet adopted this trend: What are the business needs? What is the long term plan and strategy for the company?

Indoor Asset Tracking with Reduced Costs and Improved Accuracy

Asset tracking isn’t new – many manufacturers have been using ultra-wideband (UWB), passive RFID, active RFID or simple spreadsheets for years.  Each of these technologies has trade-offs in cost and accuracy.  New technologies from AirFinder OnSite drive the costs of real-time location systems (RTLS) down, while providing up to 1 meter in accuracy.  This combines the accuracy of the expensive ultra-wideband systems while using much lower cost tags. New analytics and reporting capabilities provide the data for manufacturing managers to make the best operational decisions, improve efficiencies, and improve the bottom line. Now, manufacturers that need to track work in process, people, or equipment, can use RTLS platforms to transform data and location information into actionable intelligence.

To wrap it up

The year 2021 is upon us and with it, technology is advancing. A critical question for manufacturers is which technologies they should adopt this year, and which trends should be held for the future. What really matters is the strategy or direction of the whole company. Yes, it would be easy to invest in all of the latest technology, but what if the technology won’t actually bring the company a return on investment? 

Interested in learning more about how indoor asset tracking can improve your manufacturing facility? If you need help taking a step into the future of manufacturing, then please contact us . . .

Written by Glenn Schatz

Glenn is the Vice President of Business Development at Link Labs. He is in charge of generating new business, interacting with distributors, sales reps, partners, and customers, and answering any technical questions that arise to ensure that the engineers can spend their time developing technology.

Before Link Labs, Glenn worked at the Department of Energy bringing energy efficiency to main street businesses, and was also a co-founder of ECORE Ventures, a cleantech project development company. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, where he eventually went back to teach Energy Policy as a military officer and civilian professor. Prior to his return to USNA, he was a submarine officer stationed in Virginia on a guided missile sub.

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