Manufacturing innovation is improving the way we imagine and iterate production processes, design approaches, and even the materials we use. Emerging technologies — including artificial intelligence (AI), advances in automation, and 3D printing — are enabling companies to produce more with less.
Thanks to innovations like smart sensors, the industrial internet of things (IIoT), and cloud-based analytics tools, manufacturers can now collect and interpret huge amounts of data to improve operations in real time. They can also produce items with fewer workers physically present thanks to the introduction of tools like collaborative assembly (cobots), which can work side-by-side with humans.
3 phases of innovation in manufacturing
Manufacturing innovation isn't just about technology. Innovative manufacturers make innovation part of their corporate ecosystem and encourage new ideas.
Wipfli, a top business consultancy serving tens of thousands of clients, identified the following three-phased approach that successful innovators use to be more resilient and achieve success.
Phase #1 Establish Strategy & Goals
Creating a dedicated manufacturing innovation strategy is key to enabling innovation. To get started, businesses need to set goals and key performance indicators (KPIs). Ask yourself:
- What do you want to accomplish (e.g., fill a gap in the market, address a customer need, meet a revenue goal, etc.)?
- What are your customers demanding? How can you better serve them?
- What is your competition doing (and how can you stay ahead of them?)
- What resources do you have available (and what do you need)?
Many businesses already have dedicated innovation strategies. In Wipfli's 2022 Resilient Manufacturers Study (WRMS), 39% of 194 manufacturers surveyed indicated they have an innovation strategy that aligns with other corporate strategies.
Phase 2: Ideate, Ideate, Ideate
The second phase of manufacturing innovation is to generate ideas. The most common way companies do this is by working with customers to determine what they want or need.
Brainstorming sessions with employees, customers, and other stakeholders can unearth new ideas and needs. It’s an effective way to align innovation with business objectives. These sessions should be open and collaborative, with a focus on generating as many ideas as possible.
You can also use technology to generate ideas. Data analytics reveals patterns and trends that may inspire ideas for new products or production methods.
Phase 3: Execution
In the execution phase, you'll develop and implement your ideas. This usually requires some form of prototyping, which can be done using 3D printers, simulation software, or other methods.
Map out the execution process and define milestones, assigning responsibilities to teams and team members. A one-piece flow approach — a manufacturing process in which each unit of production moves sequentially from one operation to the next, without batching or stockpiling — can help eliminate waste and reduce cycle times.
This final phase also requires ongoing testing and refinement. As you implement your innovation, you'll likely encounter unforeseen challenges and obstacles. The goal is to make sure your innovation is ready for market before investing too much time and money into full-scale production.
How to drive manufacturing innovation
For manufacturing innovation to be successful, companies need to create an environment that fosters creativity, support, and positivity.
One way to do this is by forming dedicated teams or "innovation labs" that are focused on generating and executing new ideas. Give teams the resources they need to succeed, including access to data and technology.
It's also important to establish a clear process for innovation which includes specific goals and KPIs. Be proactive about managing talent, provide opportunities for growth, and make sure you're competitive enough to attract highly skilled workers to your organization.
The manufacturing innovation process consists of three primary steps, as follows:
- Benchmarking: Determine how your innovation process compares to competitors by using data to help quantify and analyze KPIs. Examples of key metrics include time to market, number of patents, profit/revenue from new innovations, and customer retention.
- Improving R&D: Evaluate the effectiveness of your current R&D process and how it compares with industry best practices.
- Investing in Talent: Drive innovation through your workforce by attracting and retaining skilled talent. This includes identifying gaps in your workforce and using data to target potential recruits. You can also identify areas that require external experts and technologies to improve processes, streamline production, and optimize R&D.
The top 15 manufacturing innovations of 2022
There's so much going on in the world of manufacturing that it can be hard to keep up with the latest trends and innovations. To help inspire you, we've compiled a list of 15 manufacturing innovations that are set to transform the industry over the next few years.
1. Industrial Automation/Robotics
Robots and other automated equipment can now perform tasks once completed by humans, increasing efficiency and productivity. Advances in control systems and robotic tools (e.g., pick-and-place robots, 3D printers, machine vision, etc.) have made it possible to automate a variety of tasks in different manufacturing industries.
2. Additive Manufacturing
Advances in computer-aided design (CAD) and 3D printing are helping businesses quickly create complex designs with additive manufacturing. The ability to generate three-dimensional objects from a digital file reduces the cost of moving from concept to design and shortens production time.
3. Artificial Intelligence
AI facilitates optimization throughout the entire ideation and production process. It produces insights about processes and performance by analyzing data much more quickly than humans can. The results of AI analysis help manufacturers improve quality, streamline inventory management, reduce warehousing costs, and predict outcomes.
4. Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)
IIoT is the network of physical objects and devices that are connected to the internet. IIoT devices can communicate with each other, connecting the management layer of a manufacturing business to its shop floor. This helps streamline operations and communication while improving safety.
5. Immersive Technology
Augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR) are exciting new technologies that provide immersive experiences for employees and customers. Immersive technologies can assist with training, design, assembly, and quality control.
6. Big Data & Analytics
Big data — the large volume of data that organizations create and store daily — supports manufacturing innovation in several ways. As noted above, big data enables AI and machine learning and can also help track quality, performance, and maintenance issues. Big data also informs predictive analytics.
7. Cloud Computing
Cloud-based systems offer a number of advantages for manufacturers, including scalability, flexibility, and reduced costs. The technology facilitates real-time collaboration and helps reduce the need for on-premise infrastructure (e.g., computers, servers, etc.)
The next generation of wireless technology, 5G, is expected to have a major impact on manufacturing. The technology will enable faster data transmission, lower latency, and higher bandwidth, forming a foundation that's needed to smoothly implement and manage IIoT. This will facilitate real-time collaboration, increased automation, and remote monitoring.
Manufacturers can use wearable technology, such as smart glasses and smart watches, to provide employees with training and on-demand troubleshooting. Wearable tech can also improve safety, as it monitors movements and can analyze ergonomics.
Smart glasses can help workers access diagrams and record their work. Image source.
10. Green Manufacturing
Sustainability is becoming increasingly important to consumers and, as a result, manufacturers are looking for ways to reduce their environmental impact. Green manufacturing practices help reduce waste, conserve energy, and lower emissions. Some common green manufacturing methods include using recycled materials, minimizing energy consumption, and using renewable energy sources.
As more devices, systems, and data sources enter the manufacturing ecosystem, businesses will need to link data and information across the entire value chain — from R&D to delivery. Application programming interfaces (APIs) that connect cloud and hybrid-cloud environments make it possible to connect disparate systems and share data.
12. Smart Sensors
Smart sensors collect data about the production process in real time. They capture machine movement and vibration, enabling remote monitoring via the use of dashboards. This information can improve quality and reduce costs.
13. Smart MES
Smart Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) integrate data from industrial IoT systems, tracking the entire manufacturing process from production to the final product. This lean manufacturing innovation can help optimize performance, improve quality, and reduce costs.
14. Digital Twins
A digital twin is a virtual (e.g., digital) representation of a physical object or system. Some manufacturers are using this technology to create virtual models of physical factories. Virtual models can be used for simulations to test different scenarios and minimize risks during the production process.
15. Smart factories
A smart factory is an industrial facility that uses advanced technologies to increase efficiency and productivity. Smart factories combine many of the innovations we listed above, including big data and analytics, cloud computing, robotics, and 3D printing to drive the manufacturing process.
MassChallenge supports innovators
MassChallenge is passionate about helping manufacturing startups succeed, and we also aim to help established companies find fresh new ideas to improve their processes.
If you're a manufacturing startup looking to innovate, or you want to provide guidance for a startup, apply to join the MassChallenge community today.