Manufacturing Tomorrow


Technologies Driving Digital Transformation in Discrete Manufacturing

Aug 01, 2017
Manufacturing and Distribution

Technologies Driving Digital Transformation 

This blog post—Part 2 of a 4-part Digital Transformation series for discrete manufacturers—provides an overview of the emerging technologies available today and how each can be used to improve business results. 

Most discrete manufacturers have implemented valuable technologies somewhere in their organizations, like CAD software that aids in design and drafting, and enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions that integrate and optimize processes and production. Both are common in most discrete organizations because the associated ROI is typically very significant.

Today, technologies have advanced significantly to include things like augmented reality and robots—tools that sound almost space-age yet are available, and practical, for even small manufacturers. This post takes a look at some you may not be familiar with but should consider as you work to maintain a competitive edge and grow your business profitably. 

What we’re seeing in best-in-class discrete facilities today is a host of breakthrough equipment and processes. This may sound like inflated hype, but many industry leaders agree that digital manufacturing technologies will transform every component of the chain, from R&D, supply chain, and operations, to sales, marketing, and customer service. What will drive value in manufacturing in the coming years will be improved operational efficiencies and product innovations, made possible in large part by the following technologies:

Internet of Things (IoT) 
The IoT is the practice of connecting equipment, sensors, computers/devices, and people to share and leverage data to gain insights that power better decision-making, and make it possible to boost equipment utilization and product quality while reducing energy consumption. By monitoring, collecting, processing, and analyzing the data generated by their equipment, manufacturers are able to improve efficiencies and quality. Manufacturers that leverage the technology to its fullest extent have a sophisticated network of sensors that are able to make autonomous decisions about how manufacturing is executed, based on data it’s receiving. IoT even makes it possible for equipment to “learn” in order to improve machine and process performance. 

According to McKinsey Global Institute, the top three applications of analytics coming from IoT are predictive and prescriptive maintenance of machines, customer/marketing-related analytics, and analysis of product usage in the field. The latter is a process by which manufacturers gather useful data from their products even after those products are in the hands of customers. Connected products send customer experience data to product managers to help them anticipate demand and maintenance needs and design better products in the future. A major aeronautics engine manufacturer, for example, uses sensors in its products to continually monitor performance as a way to predict and mitigate potential maintenance needs. 

Robots are hard at work in a wide variety of industries, from healthcare and food manufacturing to automotive and consumer goods manufacturing, working right alongside humans to execute sometimes very complex tasks with a high level of precision. Robots are especially valuable in industries that handle hazardous materials, in situations where safety is a concern, in facilities that require clean rooms (like pharmaceutical plants), and in lights-out facilities that operate 24/7. 

Augmented Reality
Imagine wearing a pair of goggles that interact with workers as they perform tasks, providing on-screen instructions, alerting you of issues, and giving them feedback about the speed and accuracy of their work. This technology exists and is helping manufacturers improve the quality of their products and the overall efficiency of the production process. In addition to executing tasks, this technology is also being used to track inventory, provide worker training, and deliver a variety of useful data that can be used to gain insight into the efficiency of the entire operation.

3D Printing
This technology is becoming more widely recognized as a way to save time and money, particularly when it comes to prototyping. Developing a prototype for an injection-molded part, for example, is a time-consuming process with a high price tag. Today, though, 3D printers can create the same part prototype in a fraction of the time and cost. While the technology and its capabilities have a way to go before it can be considered appropriate for a wide range of uses, it’s helping some organizations reduce up-front investment into new products and speed time to market.

Manufacturers today can’t afford to overlook technologies that can reduce costs and pave the way for new products and added revenue. But it’s a big commitment—and one that doesn’t happen overnight. In upcoming posts in this series, we’ll discuss the cultural/organizational changes that must be made to adopt a technology-drive business, and the most practical steps necessary to make the transformation a success. In the meantime, if you know technology is the key to maintaining a competitive advantage, reach out to Wipfli to talk with one of our manufacturing experts. We’ve helped many discrete manufacturers leverage the power of digital technology to improve results, and we’d be thrilled to help you, too.


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