Between 1981 and 2020, manufacturing innovation grew significantly, with a 153% increase in U.S. patents for industrial manufacturing processes. That unprecedented growth in innovation spawned what’s now known as the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0.
Industry 4.0 encompasses artificial intelligence, biometrics, cloud computing, and other technologies that have historically not been associated with manufacturing. Now, businesses are investing in manufacturing innovation in order to increase efficiency, reduce the risk of human error and injury, and remain competitive.
In this post, we’ll cover some of the top manufacturing trends and explain how they’re driving change in the manufacturing sector.
Cobots: Collaborative Robots
Large manufacturers — automakers, for example — have been using robotic technology for decades. Robotic machines can perform complex tasks and accelerate production, but they’re costly, and they may be impractical for manufacturers that need scalable automation.
Collaborative robots, otherwise known as cobots, offer flexibility and affordability, compared to traditional robotics. Cobots can be programmed to automate a single process, rather than a multi-step task — they don’t replace human workers, but instead work alongside them.
This cobot moves boxes assembled by human workers onto a pallet for quick transport. Source
Common applications for cobots include material handling, assembly, and finishing. By 2026, cobots are expected to play a larger role in healthcare, assisting with medication dispensing, collecting swab samples, and checking patient vital signs.
Augmented Reality and Immersive Technology
Assembly processes still rely on a human workforce, which means the risk of injury and error is ever-present. Augmented reality and immersive technology can reduce those risks.
Immersive technologies like AR transform instruction manuals into digital images that overlay machinery, so users don’t need to consult physical instruction manuals. The AR overlays help machine operators detect and troubleshoot malfunctions.
AR can also render 3D replicas of actual machines, allowing for training outside of production environments. And through emerging immersive technology, technicians can perform maintenance remotely.
As climate change becomes an increasing concern, many businesses are looking to make environmentally responsible changes to manufacturing processes. Additive manufacturing is a technology that’s helping machine shops reduce waste and increase efficiency.
Unlike traditional machining, which creates components by removing material from stock pieces, additive manufacturing is the process of using CAD software or a 3D printer to create parts layer by layer. This technology thereby reduces waste and material costs and can accelerate the delivery of custom-made parts.
New: Automated Warehouses
With consumer expectations about quick order fulfillment, some businesses are automating their goods-to-person (GTP) warehousing processes. GTP automation can prepare items for shipping in half the time of human workers.
Other automation features that are improving the efficiency of warehouses include autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), automated sorting systems, and voice picking and tasking — a system in which software provides spoken instructions to workers about where to pick or place a product.
This AMR, equipped with a bin, navigates a warehouse and arrives at the location of an item, which a human worker then picks and places in the bin before the AMR delivers it to a location for further processing. Source
Internet of things sensors offer considerable value for the manufacturing sector due to their predictive maintenance capabilities. Using IoT sensors, manufacturers can detect the need for repairs before machines fail, reducing breakdowns by 70%.
Additionally, IoT sensors can collect information throughout operations, identifying inefficient processes. As a result, IoT sensors can help business leaders know when to upgrade equipment or refine processes.
Machine Vision Error Detection
The inspection process is often subjective, and some defects may be imperceptible to the human eye. Machine vision offers a solution to that problem.
Machine vision uses AI to inspect parts and processes at a rate that would be impossible for human inspectors. At a Heineken facility in France, a machine vision system inspects bottles as they pass through the bottling machine at a rate of 22 bottles per second. This automated, high-speed inspection technology reduces the risk of defects and wasted product.
Supply Chain Nearshoring
A 2020 survey of 878 manufacturing and industrial professionals revealed that 64% of manufacturers planned to bring sourcing and manufacturing back to North America. That’s a manufacturing trend known as “nearshoring,” and it can reduce costly supply chain disruptions.
Supply chain nearshoring is expected to eliminate dependency on single sources of supplies and shield companies from the negative impacts of market instability.
Nearshoring may increase supply costs, but the benefits often outweigh the price. It eliminates the cost of overseas shipping and reduces lead time for the shipment of essential materials and components.
5G may not have been created specifically for manufacturing, but it supports the technology that’s powering today’s manufacturing.
5G networks can support up to 1 million devices per square kilometer. With this level of reach, manufacturers could utilize IoT sensors on just about every machine in a facility. Through IoT sensors and an interconnected communication system, machines could exchange information, improving processes and minimizing disruptions.
Wearable devices help mitigate safety issues by monitoring employee movements and providing feedback when employees are in a potentially risky situation. For example, PepsiCo provides belt-mounted devices that gently vibrate when a worker is in a precarious position, such as overreaching, or twisting to reach an object. The worker can then adjust their posture, and the device sends data to a cloud-based platform. Managers can use that data to identify common health and safety threats.
AI Data Analysis
Modern manufacturing tools allow for vast quantities of data, and AI can extract valuable insights from data to optimize production.
AI can quickly analyze large quantities of data about processes, materials, and assets, and detect patterns. It can also assist with predictive maintenance and quality control.
Cloud computing eliminates the need for expensive hardware and servers, allowing data to be shared over an extensive network. Cloud computing also opens up access to data for remotely connected workers.
An example of how cloud-based processes can assist manufacturers comes from Hefx, a Brazilian startup. The company makes cloud-based software for production line maintenance that collects and analyzes machine data, stores it in the cloud, and then suggests calibration schedules and preventative maintenance.
Innovative manufacturing trends are increasing safety, efficiency, and overall operations. Technology is helping business leaders make better decisions, reduce the risk of unplanned downtime, and minimize waste.
Industry 4.0 concepts are revolutionizing how manufacturers work. Innovative solutions like cloud computing analytics, the IoT, and AI function alongside workers and offer capabilities beyond what humans can do.
MassChallenge can help your business incorporate new technology, by connecting you with the top talent in manufacturing innovation. Learn more about the benefits of becoming a MassChallenge partner.