4 Trends Reshaping Modern Manufacturing

Manufacturers are like snowflakes: Though they may appear the same at first glance, not one is exactly alike. Different production practices, equipment, software programs, platforms and production systems most often bring different results even when they are in similar industries. 

Nonetheless, we see common pain points across a range of sub-sectors within manufacturing. From aerospace, space exploration, medical devices, alternative energy providers and electric vehicle manufacturers, they face similar challenges like the rising cost of materials, labor shortages, ever-changing regulations, and the need to remain agile to adapt to unplanned circumstances. A recent manufacturing survey by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) affirms these are the leading problems in today’s factories. 

In response to these challenges, the following trends are taking root across manufacturing organizations:

Sustainability isn’t only for the environment

There is hardly a day that goes by where environmental issues are being discussed in the news – global warming, ozone depletion, and our world’s diminishing natural resources. If businesses continue to operate with a “business as usual” mindset, the future of our planet will be in jeopardy. 

Driven by environmental concerns and regulatory pressure, manufacturers playing an active role in making our planet more sustainable for future generations by being conscious of sustainability from the first step in their manufacturing process until well beyond what may seem like the last.

Manufacturing today must “meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” That may sound well and good, but what are some ways that manufacturers can operate their factories more sustainably? How can they transition from today’s way of doing business to tomorrow’s more sustainable company?

  • Reuse and Recycling:  Recycling isn’t a new concept. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) instituted a National Recycling Strategy in 2019 to strengthen American’s recycling infrastructure. However, much more than bottles, cans, paper, and other more traditional products must be a part of the solution. What about rockets? After rockets are sent to space, they can’t be set out at the curb for recycling, can they? They can if they’re made by SpaceX. The company pioneered reusing rocket parts to reduce costs and make space exploration more sustainable. This type of remanufacturing will help companies reduce waste and lower production costs in innovative ways.

  • Energy Reduction: Everything within a manufacturing facility requires power. Collecting data from daily manufacturing processes can help leaders better understand design, development, and production to reduce energy consumption within a plant to better plan production schedules. The IRA allocates nearly $6 billion for competitive grants that aim to advance industrial technology specifically geared towards accelerating reductions in greenhouse gas emissions within industrial processes. Funding can support both new equipment acquisition and retrofitting or upgrading existing infrastructure.

  • Sustainability by Design: Sustainability doesn’t happen by accident. Becoming a more sustainable manufacturing facility starts in the infancy of product development. A new generation of engineers are implementing decisions early in the manufacturing process, as they identify the types of materials that are going to be used, their impact on the environment, if and how they can be reused all with an eye toward manufacturing in a more sustainable manner.

Manufacturing that is agile

With today’s uncertain economic times and the pace of innovative technologies, there is so much unpredictability that manufacturers have to be able to change and adapt – often at a moment’s notice. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in global supply chains, leading to a renewed emphasis on supply chain resilience and risk management. That’s why the trend of agile manufacturing is gaining such a spotlight. 

Manufacturing facilities don’t move, at least not physically. Equipment is also pretty static. So, how can agility be a part of manufacturing? Through communication, technology, data, and systems.

Agile manufacturing embraces continuous improvement through short, iterative stages – in software, these are known as sprints. The point of sprints is to break from a fixed and potentially flawed routine in favor of quick, segmented cycles that allow for incremental improvements. The concept is that if each particular part of the manufacturing process can be improved, then it should be done as soon as possible, as opposed to looking at the entire process as an unsegmented whole.

Manufacturing leaders who implement agility into their production processes will be more likely to survive and thrive. When raw materials, parts and people aren’t available, shutting down isn’t an option. Manufacturers will diversify sourcing strategies and invest in localized production to enhance resilience and mitigate disruptions.

Manufacturers can achieve more agility through:

  • Embracing new technologies: Technology is changing at breakneck speed. The types of technology vary from one manufacturer to another depending on needs, budgets, and industries. However, no matter what type of technology may be best for an individual manufacturer, it will continue to change. Leaders need to be ready to implement new technological advances in current platforms, programs, and processes to adapt to unplanned changes and demands. 

  • Real-time iteration: How often do you see products that are launched, only to have recalls to fix unplanned bugs? Agile manufacturing involves design that allows technicians to flag flaws during the production process so that engineers can address them immediately. Being able to iterate more quickly reduces the risk of problems further along in the production process. This saves time and money and improves overall end-user safety, satisfaction, and reduces costs.

  • Flexible Software: With all the different steps and processes required for moving from prototype to production, flexibility needs to be baked into the systems supporting manufacturers. Knowing what’s going to work best is often discovered in the midst of production by the hands-on work of the technician. The important of initially building digital work instructions combined with visual work instructions is only half of the puzzle. The other half is integrating changes as they arise, with minimal disruption. Manufacturing operations management software like First Resonance’s ION Factory OS allow manufacturers to update step-by-step instructions and automate merging the changes across assemblies, wherever the same process exists.

Connectivity stacks – the power of interchangeable best-in-class solutions 

Manufacturing will become increasingly digitalized and interconnected, with seamless integration of data and systems across the entire value chain. Technology stacks, or tech stacks as they are more commonly known, will become the heartbeat of the manufacturing industry. What is a manufacturing tech stack? It is the software and hardware that keeps a manufacturer running on a daily basis and is layered or stacked together to relay data and automation back and forth between them. If a manufacturing facility were an automobile, its tech stack would be the motor, oil, antifreeze, brake fluid, gas, computer, and parts that make it move.

There isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” tech stack for manufacturers. There are different requirements and budgets that help determine what type of tech stack a manufacturer may need, and it can change over time as operations scale or constrict. A flexible tech stacks makes it possible to react and adapt quickly when it’s time to add, subtract, or reassess their focus to improve efficiency and productivity.

This shift towards thinking about a foundation for connectivity also positions operations executives to position themselves to leverage advanced technologies like IoT and AI without ripping and replacing existing systems, ushering in a new era of intelligent manufacturing. 

An ideal foundation for a manufacturing tech stack is your MES. Designed to connect every layer of a company’s operations, ION from First Resonance provides turnkey integration and an agile API that connects tools like PLM, ERP and QMS to automate flow across the production line and supply chain. ION captures real-time data to create a robust digital thread that is strengthened with every integration. 

Making manufacturing smarter

Another trend in manufacturing for 2024 is something that sounds obvious but deserves a great deal of explanation: Smart Factories. Also often called “factories of the future,” smart factories are those that utilize interconnected technologies to create continuous improvement. 

Achieved through digital transformation, smart factories are driven by data and intelligent automation. Every manufacturing facility utilizes data. However, few organizations are structured to maximize their use of that data. In a factory that adopts the principles of a Smart Factory Mindset,  this data flows to the facility’s equipment and people in real time to optimize systems and processes.

A recent Deloitte study indicated that the majority (86%) of surveyed manufacturing executives believe that smart factory solutions will be the primary drivers of competitiveness in the next five years.

The Smart Manufacturing Institute (CESMII) is a non-profit institute “working to reduce cost, complexity and time-to-value so all manufacturers can engage in Smart Manufacturing.” CESMII features online workshops, live educational events, audio files, and other resource materials to help manufacturers understand how they’ll need to structure their operations to to incorporate the near future of composite AI, intelligent robots, and new software. 

Trending means something in manufacturing

When something is trending, it can mean a lot of different things. While a fashion trend can quickly disappear, manufacturing trends will shape the future. The next decade in manufacturing will be characterized by digitalization, agility, sustainability, and collaboration, as manufacturers embrace technological advancements and adapt to evolving market dynamics and customer demands.