What’s NXT: 8 decisive trends the manufacturing sector should know to stay competitive in the future

The manufacturing industry will undergo radical change over the next ten years. Of course, some smaller and niche manual manufacturing will prevail. But what about the rest? Who will survive the ever-growing competition brought by faster and more effective manufacturing? Are large corporations favored over medium-sized companies?

The answer is quite simple: Those best prepared for change are companies that reflect on the future possibilities of digitalization and automation and have already started reallocating resources in those sectors. Therefore, the decisive factor will not be whether or not you favor an upcoming technology boom but to ensure that you have sufficient capacity for change to benefit from it.

Today, we see more and more examples of large-scale production where the production lines are more or less fully automated. It is even more spectacular when robots build robots. However, for most small and medium-sized companies, much of the planning, material logistics, and even production are still handled manually. The question is, how long can this go on?

Perhaps we put too much focus on the automation of the production process itself. Sure, a robot that works 24/7 will provide a significant amount of efficiency. And a “hubot” – a chat robot that interacts directly with customers, also known as a chatbot – that works side by side with the production staff, can both relieve specific ergonomically demanding tasks and at the same time contribute to a higher pace. But think now about all the resources that companies spend on material procurement, production planning, assembly instructions, and quality controls. Areas that will surely be able to be automated in tomorrow’s industry.

The Winds of Automation are Blowing in New Directions
Let’s look 5 to 10 years ahead. We see the contours of several shifts that will fundamentally change the manufacturing industry. The challenge is that these shifts do not just mean the introduction of new technology. In many cases, they also lead to new business logic and require innovative and extensive system integration. We at Kairos Future like to talk about process innovation, a skill that will relatively soon separate the wheat from the chaff.

So then, what are these disruptive shifts that we should already be preparing for?

Shift 1. From Robotization to Full Automation
Robots have shown us in a physically tangible way how a manufacturing process can be automated and streamlined. Soon we will see the whole manufacturing process undergo a new level of automation around the production, from material procurement to preparation and planning. And that’s just the beginning.

Shift 2. From system-supported planning to AI-controlled decision-making
Most companies use some form of system to support their planning, material procurement. This system enables support by keeping track of delivery times, prices, and MOQs (Minimum Order Quantity), which is already a step in the right direction. But to meet tomorrow’s requirements for delivery times and stock values, a more AI-driven logic will be required. These AI systems will have decision-making responsibilities, such as what and when to buy, depending on how the market looks.

Shift 3. From drawing material to production material
The step from 2D drawings to 3D models has enabled automatic review of manufacturability, ergonomics, etc. Future generations of design tools will see the automatic generation of suggestions for material requirements and production data, not just for additive manufacturing (3D printing).

Shift 4. From product deliveries to service platforms
As more and more processes are integrated and become dependent on each other, the degree of overall customer commitments also increases. Increasingly, sales will take place in service commitments focusing on the delivery of quality and precision.

The Trends that will Lead us to These Future Technology Shifts
As a manufacturing technology company, you must therefore prepare for these shifts. The bare minimum is staying informed about what is waiting around the corner. But even more crucial is to already act on the trends that are driving these shifts. 

Dealing with today’s operational challenges and at the same time reallocating resources to prepare for the transition is undoubtedly challenging but not impossible. Just be mindful about where resources are assigned. 

Trend 1. From T-competence to Pi-competence
A prerequisite for integrating tomorrow’s automation is that the systems are programmed and transferable to other processes. Therefore, in the future, it will not be enough to have specialist competencies. In many cases, at least two (of which systemization is often one) will be necessary to implement system support effectively.

Trend 2. Common IoT platforms
Well-thought-out system integration is the prerequisite for automation and AI support. Although these platforms are so far mainly used for logging information, they are worth their weight in gold if they are built for AI-supported production in mind. An example of this is structured data collection that will make it easier to build tasks around later on.

Trend 3. Information security increasingly in focus
System information will be valued increasingly higher to a company’s survival. We are already seeing how cyber-attacks on the manufacturing industry are growing. Carrying out systematic vulnerability analysis and increasing IT security is a sure step in the right direction.

Trend 4. The material becomes digital
Materials will be increasingly labeled with QR codes, digital tags, or the like for traceability. In the future, this labeling will be even more critical for keeping track of all material flow, inventory management, and logistics, and, perhaps also, carbon footprint.

Trend 5. Flexibility on the agenda
To meet growing demands on delivery times and faster production cycles, efficiency will no longer be the only requirement. A higher degree of flexibility will be essential. Today, arguments are made for flexible lines, mainly to quickly switch and adapt production to fast changes or simply minor tweaks that promote innovation. As we advance, the efficient use of resources will also be an essential step for the planet and cost savings.

Trend 6. The industry is taking increasing responsibility for education
Increasing knowledge and understanding of companies’ manufacturing processes are required. To better assimilate a theoretical education and contribute more quickly to the development of companies, striving to be a part of student’s education should be a priority of a successful company.

Trend 7. Collaboration with robots
More and more companies are implementing “hubots” (also known as chatbots) to work together with production staff. Even one robot installed can provide the conditions and pave the way to think and prepare for a more automated production environment.

Trend 8. Teleworking
During the past year’s pandemic, we have been forced to adapt to a situation where more people work from home. This has been challenging in many respects. One upside, however, is that it has prepared us for a more permanent work situation as more and more resources are available at a distance.

In the wake of the Corona pandemic, it is understandable that companies have been fully occupied with meeting the operational challenges they have faced. The time to analyze which strategic choices one should make to succeed in the future is often neglected. But as the old saying goes, never let a crisis go to waste. We at Kairos Future are happy to help you out with our expertise on what we think the future will require. Or maybe you just need a little inspiration for you work, in which case we’d be thrilled to assist!

By Lars Eidenvall