From cars to computers, coffee machines to children’s toys, almost everything we use on an everyday basis is produced by manufacturers. It’s no wonder manufacturing is often described as a key building block of society.
Manufacturing has evolved over the centuries, from human-centered methods to machine-reliant assembly lines to the highly automated factories we’re beginning to see more of today. And the industry continues to evolve. Indeed, a number of trends are combining to transform manufacturing and, together, these trends can be referred to as “Industry 4.0.” Let’s explore the seven biggest trends that are contributing to Industry 4.0.
Trend 1: The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)
You’ve heard of the Internet of Things; well, now we have the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), where interconnected devices are used in manufacturing and industrial settings to collect data – data that can then be used to enhance the manufacturing process.
Sensors are a prime example of these interconnected IIoT devices. Data gathered from sensors on factory machines can help manufacturers understand how machines are performing, optimize the maintenance process, reduce machine downtime, and even predict when things will go wrong. Which brings us to the next big trend in manufacturing…
Trend 2: 5G & edge computing
The fifth generation of mobile data network technology (5G) will enable manufacturers to easily connect their IIoT technology and leverage the data collection and data processing within devices such as smart machines and sensors (what we refer to as edge computing). Manufacturers can create a private 5G network on their premises which will give them superfast data speeds without the need for cables and much-improved data security.
Trend 3: Predictive maintenance
In a manufacturing context, predictive maintenance refers to the use of sensor data and artificial intelligence (AI) to detect failure patterns in machinery and components. The idea is that by understanding when a machine or part is likely to fail, manufacturers can take preventative action and maintain their equipment more effectively.
And this doesn’t just apply to fancy new equipment. Siemens has used such sensors on older motors and transmissions – and by analyzing the data from these sensors, Siemens says it can interpret a machine’s condition, detect irregularities and fix machines before they fail. This shows how predictive maintenance processes can be applied even to legacy machinery.
Trend 4: Digital twins
Digital twins can be used to simulate any physical process or object. For example, in a manufacturing setting, a digital twin could be used to simulate a new product's dimensions or create a digital replica of the equipment on the factory floor to see how the machinery operates under certain conditions. Digital twin technology can even be used to visualize and simulate an entire supply chain. By 2022, as many as 70 percent of manufacturers may be using digital twins to conduct simulations and evaluations – which gives you an idea of just how transformative this trend could be.
Using digital twins, Boeing has been able to achieve a 40 percent improvement rate in first-time quality of parts. In 2018, the then CEO of Boeing, Dennis Muilenburg, said digital twins would be the biggest driver of production efficiency improvements over the next decade.
Trend 5: Extended Reality and the metaverse
Extended reality technologies such as augmented and virtual reality will play an increasingly important part in manufacturing, from enhanced product design, better production planning, augmenting human abilities on assembly lines, and more immersive training. As more of the world extends into the metaverse, more opportunities will arise for manufacturers.
Trend 6: Automation and dark factories
Thanks to AI, machines are now capable of carrying out more and more tasks that were previously reserved for humans. So it makes sense that machines can take on more and more manufacturing tasks.
Automation can bring many advantages to manufacturers, including higher productivity (machines don’t get tired), greater accuracy, and lower costs. We may even see more entirely automated factories or so-called dark factories – fully automated sites where production happens without direct human intervention on site.
Trend 7: Robots and cobots
One of the key enablers of automation is the use of robots. But it’s worth noting that not all robots are there to replace human workers – many are there to enhance the work of humans. For example, we have robotic exoskeletons that help those on the production line lift heavier parts without compromising their safety. And we have collaborative, intelligent robots – or “cobots” – that are specifically designed to work alongside humans.
Robots and cobots can help manufacturers achieve greater efficiencies. This was the case for Nissan, who deployed Universal Robots’ robotic arms at its motor production facilities in Japan to help overcome problems around maintaining production times (largely due to labor shortages). Nissan also deployed cobots to help employees install engine intakes, among other tasks.
Trend 8: 3D printing
As 3D printing becomes more cost-effective, efficient, and scalable, manufacturers will increasingly be able to make products using 3D printing methods – which use fewer materials and create less waste than traditional manufacturing methods. I believe 3D printing will also drive a new era of personalization because individually personalized products can be made without worrying about economies of scale. Plus, 3D printing can help to drive innovation by allowing rapid prototyping.
Airbus has been using 3D printing technology for more than 15 years, making it something of a 3D printing pioneer in the manufacturing industry. The company extensively uses 3D printing for localized on-demand production of toolings, such as jigs and fixtures.
Trend 9: Web3 and blockchain technology
With the emergence of Web3 and distributed computing technology such as blockchains and NFTs (non-fungible tokens), there will be opportunities for manufacturers to better monitor their supply chains and even automate many of the transactions along their supply chains. Many of the products that will be manufactured in the future will be sold with their NFT digital certificates.
Trend 10: Smarter, more sustainable products
The emergence of smart connected IoT devices isn’t just changing how products are manufactured but what types of products are manufactured. These days it seems there are “smart” versions of everything from vacuum cleaners to toilets, and the trend for smart products shows no sign of slowing down. Therefore, manufacturers will increasingly have to explore ways of giving customers the intelligent products they expect.
On top of this, I believe customers will increasingly gravitate towards products that are sustainable, reusable, and recyclable. The throwaway culture of the past is – hopefully – coming to an end, and this is another factor that manufacturers will have to take into account.