When I first got started in manufacturing most manufacturers were still at some point on their journey to retool their production environments with CNC machines. After all, it was not that long ago that I was individually loading blanks into a lathe to produce a key part of the rearview mirror assembly – initially for a major automaker and then as an aftermarket offering. It kept the facility busy for several years, but it was a very tedious and undeniably manual process.
There has always been a population of manufacturers living on the bleeding edge, utilizing their willingness to embrace the latest technology in order to gain a significant competitive advantage. And these firms continue to play a meaningful role. After all they keep the thirst for new technology alive.
However, the big picture utilization of technology is evolving considerably. Step into just about any production facility today, and it is easy to see that manufacturing technology has a completely different meaning than it did then. Advanced technology is no longer something that was nice to have. Today, manufacturing technology takes center stage. And as the data-driven experience economy continues to solidify, the tech story ultimately becomes one of convergence.
Consider, for instance, the mass customization story that Nancy Giordano, post digital futurist and founder of Play Big Inc., shared with me recently. During the Oslo Business Forum last year, she strapped on a pair of virtual reality goggles in order to take a digital journey through the back-end processing and logistics necessary to enable her to design her very own custom pair of Adidas sneakers – and have them delivered to her within four days.
“Imagine all the players that need to come together to make that happen: from the AI powered online site that guides my choices and maybe takes my bitcoin payment; to the materials partners alerted in real time of the colors and textures I’ve chosen; to the 3D printer and/or robot seamstresses nearest me waiting to produce and sustainably package my shoes; to the scheduling of drone pick-up; to the creation of a secure delivery site, and it is all tracked in real time,” says Giordano.
As anyone in manufacturing knows, such scenarios do not simply happen. If a manufacturer hopes to economically, and repeatedly, deliver on the promise of a customer driven experience, it requires a seamless convergence of advanced data capabilities with both emerging and maturing manufacturing technologies. And, it needs to be a cyclical process of continuous improvement, always learning from the data created by today’s technology.
Understandably, for most manufacturers, this scenario is more likely a peak into the future than it is today’s reality. However, as Giordano suggests, digital manufacturers who have fully embraced the power of data are on the verge of some version of this “on-demand, hyper-personalized, infinitely-dynamic” new reality. The ongoing convergence of technology making mass customization is actually “a mash-up of retail, manufacturing and logistics. Executing something like this will require a well-coordinated and synchronized collection of partners and systems," says Giordano.
Thinking back to when we had three shifts hand loading blanks, offering a two-week delivery time for a very standardized part was considered a rush delivery. That would never work in the growing world of mass customization. Of course, at that time most of the technologies converging to enable this growing trend were not even available to manufacturers operating on the bleeding edge.