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Four Digital Trends Manufacturers Should Watch for in 2018

From IoT efficiencies to cobots, manufacturing is poised for a "technology renaissance."

More than a half century after he postulated it, (Gordon) Moore’s Law is still highly relevant, and the consequences have dramatically revolutionized our world. Intel’s current CEO Brian Krzanich provided this mind-boggling evidence: if a 1971 VW Beetle were upgraded at the same speed as a computer chip from the same year, today it would have a maximum speed of 300,000 miles per hour and cost 4 cents.

 “We’re living in a time that I call a technology renaissance,” observes Michael Steep, executive director of the Stanford Engineering Center for Disruptive Technology and Digital Cities.  “I have not seen the kind of development of technical advances crossing so many different areas of technology ever... These technologies are converging and creating exponential opportunities for both disruption and growth.”

Here are four digital trends that will likely affect manufacturers this year:

1. B2B manufacturers will embrace the Internet of Things. While IoT has delivered its promise of creating new efficiencies for finance and retail firms, industrial manufacturers have struggled to understand how it will create new business models and increase customer satisfaction. This will change. In a 2017 study of six industries by Boston Consulting Group, researchers found that discrete manufacturers and, to a lesser but still significant extent process manufacturers, will see three key drivers of IoT in the coming years: 

Predictive maintenance: In 2018 more companies will save time and money as their IoT-enabled equipment undertakes self-maintenance and alerts managers to developments. Along with substantial material cost savings, this will reduce equipment downtime, maintenance planning time, and overall maintenance costs. In fact, as Deloitte recently predicted, this trend will “optimize maintenance tasks in real time, maximizing the useful life of [manufacturers’] equipment while still avoiding disruption to operations.”

Self-optimizing production: Imagine companies monitoring and optimizing production processes in real time through interconnected factories and supply chains, and initiating automated adjustments that enhance efficiency and limit waste. Over the coming year, more manufacturers will develop systems that will allow such production optimization.

Automated inventory management: Connectivity and smart warehouses will revolutionize the way manufacturers capture and utilize key data, including offering richer insights into the status of their inventory and supply chains. Businesses will track the location and the condition of their inventory in route and in the warehouse. This, in turn, will expedite response time, reduce too much or too little inventory, and enhance just-in-time production.

2. The rise of “cobot” production. The cobots are coming!  In 2018 more of the smarter, safer, less costly “collaborative robots” will replace bulkier, potentially more dangerous traditional industrial robots. According to the International Federation of Robotics, as recently as 2015 more than 99% of robots shipped were traditional. But IFR projects that cobot shipments will increase significantly in the coming years, with China and the United States taking the lead in adoption rates.

3. Blockchain comes to manufacturing. While blockchain is primarily associated with cryptocurrencies like bitcoin – the technology creates a seamless way for digital information to be stored, recorded, and distributed but not falsified or copied. Experts predict it will play an increasingly large role in other industries, including manufacturing. Think of it as a new, more trustworthy way of building digital relationships.

That makes it ideal for manufacturing supply chains. As Automation World’s Stephanie Neil notes, companies such as Foxconn are experimenting with such an infrastructure to build trusted relationships with partners and customers. For example, blockchain can be used to register, certify and track goods shipped between parties along a supply chain, with transactions verified and time-stamped in an encrypted process. The capabilities to reduce risk will drive manufacturers to adopt this technology.

4. Cybersecurity risks increase. From Equifax to WannaCry to Russia’s manipulation of U.S. social media, 2017 was the most challenging year ever for cyber threats. One IT security firm says it now registers more than 250,000 new malicious programs every day. And experts believe 2018 may be worse, as the number of sensor-infused, internet-connected devices increases. 

It could be particularly challenging for those in the industrial IoT space: cyber expert Shachar Daniel warns that as manufacturers increasingly embrace cyber-physical systems, the vulnerability of their operations will become far more vulnerable.

The good news is, while the bad guys have more opportunities to make life miserable for businesses, advances in AI and machine learning offer solutions that will help predict and ward off random cyberattacks.  

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