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Top 6 smart manufacturing tech trends that are here to stay in 2021

Jerry Foster Profile picture for user Jerry Foster December 29, 2020
This year manufacturers were forced to change the way they use technology - and there was no looking back. Plex System's Jerry Foster shares six trends in manufacturing tech to look for in 2021


The overabundance of hype is one of the few consistent things in the tech industry, and it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to deciding what's worth investing in today versus what's still under development.

The more exacting the industry, the higher the stakes. Quality-driven manufacturers are especially sensitive to making sure they invest in industry-defining, proven technologies at the right time. Introducing new systems before they're ready means risking expensive errors and downtime. But waiting too long to invest in technology could give competitors an edge, especially in the fast-moving field of smart manufacturing.

Looking ahead to 2021, companies need to be investing in several key manufacturing technologies today to walk that narrow line and find success. Here are six areas to keep a close eye on in 2021.

Cloud adoption is no longer optional

If transitioning operations to the cloud isn't top of a manufacturer's to-do list, it should be. Digital transformation with remote capabilities has gone from a nice-to-have to a need-to-have, and 2021 will be the defining year for manufacturers to fully commit to the cloud and the possibilities it brings (think smart factories). This reality has been hastened by COVID-19 and social distancing requirements on factory floors. But today's cloud-based manufacturing execution systems (MES) and quality management systems (QMS) have both the depth to tailor to individual machines and roles, and the breadth to manage company-wide operations across thousands of factories. Transitioning to cloud-based systems is about agility, speed, nimbleness, and gaining a 360-degree perspective on factory operations in real time. Given the urgency the pandemic created for manufacturers to quickly pivot to access their operations/systems remotely, non-digital operations are no longer an option.

Industrial Internet of Things speeds response times 

The ability to connect, automate, track and analyze is required for manufacturing success — Industrial IoT (IIoT) is the key to facilitating this, and is the core of any successful digital transformation. Today's IIoT solutions provide a real-time asset performance monitoring solution. They give users a highly visual, historically contextualized view of any asset in any facility to help operators and supervisors visualize trends graphically - from anywhere in the world, on any connected device. Real-time insights speed up response time, even to the point of enabling manufacturers to respond to potential issues before they happen. Machine data is also tracked and unified contextually, enabling everything from historical views to overlay charts and projections, arming manufacturers with the data they need to make the best business decisions.

Machine Learning and AI lead to better decisions

With the increase in interconnected data across manufacturing operations (e.g., ERP, MES, SCP) and sensors in IIoT comes a need to analyze and act on all that data, becoming more predictive and agile. Machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) — capable of analyzing data on a vast scale to generate meaningful insights — are instrumental to success. ML and AI enable manufacturers to access, measure, collect and process data at scale, giving them the insights they need to avoid the risk of being overly reactionary and slow to change course. In 2021, the most competitive manufacturers will leverage ML and AI to tap into trends humans alone might not be able to spot, generating these insights entirely automatically so that operators and planners can make more informed decisions. This predictive capability also supports better agility; when unplanned factory or supply chain events occur, AI is best equipped to suggest the best possible workaround in the shortest amount of time, further minimizing costs and downtime.

Additive Manufacturing moves into production

3D printing is another science fiction-sounding tool that is used on shop floors today; it has been a game-changer for manufacturers, who can move an idea through execution magnitudes faster than was previously possible. According to Plex's 5th Annual State of Manufacturing Technology Report, 3D printing is one of the top emerging technologies for smart manufacturing. Its primary utility today is prototyping products quickly and at less expense than years ago. However, we are on the cusp of being able to allow for faster production of custom, finished products at scale and this is all possible through 3D printing.

Blockchain mitigates risk

Better known as the technology that powers Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, blockchain is also showing potential as a tool for manufacturers to increase transparency and trust. This stems from its ability to record the origin and movement of a digital asset in a decentralized, distributed ledger. Though blockchain is still largely unproven in shop floor settings, it can potentially address key pain points, which include monitoring supply chains, counterfeit detection, asset tracking, quality assurance and regulatory compliance. The way blockchain technology distributes information means in addition to increasing transparency, none of this data is housed in a single location. For manufacturers still operating on a centralized system one natural disaster away from disruption, blockchain technology is a reality that can transform the way manufacturers think about risk and security.

Cobots become a must-have accessory

Cobots are another technology that will become more popular on plant floors in 2021 as companies grapple with growing production amid social distancing requirements. The disruption COVID-19 caused led to the mass deployment of cobots on factory floors to support social distancing among human employees. We are now at a point where the kinks in that implementation are being ironed out. In 2021, cobots will no longer be a pandemic-inspired experiment, but a critical necessity to sustain required automation and output throughout the year.

The pandemic forced manufacturers to shift the way they think about and use technology - and this landmark shift happened almost overnight. But, with rapid change, came rapid advancement. These six technologies were pushed to the forefront of tools smart manufacturers are using to retain and capture market share. Smart manufacturing is available and accessible today; it promises to reshape production across almost every industry ushering in a new age of connectivity, trust in data, and profitability.

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