We are in the middle of the fourth industrial revolution that is ushering industries to adopt smarter technologies to gain a competitive edge in today's cut-throat competitive landscape. With customer-centricity becoming the focal point, industries need to tailor their processes and systems to meet dynamic customer expectations.
Manufacturing industries are constantly striving to modernise their legacy approaches to better address customer needs. However, the general approach towards operationalising digitalisation strategies has been rather interesting to see. While it would be erroneous to say that the manufacturing sector is laggards in technology adoption, it is constantly trying to catch up to the break-neck speed at which emerging technologies are coming in from the IT world. What makes the complete journey interesting is the cultural makeup of the manufacturing sector, consisting of established processes, people and mindset to accept these technologies seamlessly. In this context, a number of challenges towards rapid digitalisation can be identified.
Often, there is a genuine challenge for practitioners to define the problem statement. Many a time, manufacturers decide to deploy technologies without a concrete understanding of the problem they are trying to address. This causes them to be uncertain about the benefits it would drive and leads them to under-strategize the to-be-executed actions around the new technology deployments.
Data is undoubtedly the new oil and serves as a key tool for the manufacturing sector to revive the economy. Traditionally, manufacturers across the globe have been slow in making their way through the digital world compared with their other non-industrial counterparts. Due to this, manufacturing personnel struggle to put together the business-critical data that has been in silos for years. Inability to use this data prevents the manufacturers from generating new revenue streams by exploring new opportunities.
Alongside these other roadblocks, a large part of the manufacturing workforce still finds it difficult to adapt to digital change. The ageing manufacturing workforce is not well-acquainted with the range of emerging technologies, affecting business decision-making derived from technical knowledge and expertise. Further, the technology landscape outside the manufacturing four walls is changing at a faster pace. As a result, there is an enormous gulf to integrate the legacy systems to the newer IT technologies to reap the possible benefits. This further impedes digital adoption.
Key digital trends revolutionising manufacturing
Today, manufacturers are increasingly aware of the need to create secure and scalable systems that can effectively improve output and operational efficiency. In this regard, some of the forward-looking technologies that are going to revolutionise manufacturing industries are:
Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS): CPS is a promising technology with high-performance computational abilities and the capability to connect with the surrounding objects based on the context. With the help of public network connectivity, the CPS subsystems can connect at all production levels, enabling improved product designing, maintenance, distribution, etc.
Digital twins: Digital twins are virtual replicas for monitoring physical entities in real-time. It allows engineers to use the digital version to calibrate product performance in the lab without using the original product. For this reason, digital twins are increasingly being used in manufacturing for managing machines, systems, product design, process optimisation, supply chain management, predictive maintenance and so much more.
Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality (AR/VR): AR and VR technologies have caught the eyes of manufacturers in recent times. These potentially disruptive innovations are being used in a plethora of ways in manufacturing environments like increasing productivity, remote support/service, workforce training, launching/marketing new products, inventory management, factory floor planning etc.
Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML): AI and ML are not merely theories anymore as manufacturers are inclining towards these smart technologies to solve critical business problems. Some of the areas where AI and ML are doing wonders are tracing manufacturing defects, identifying damages/faults in assets, product development, cyber security and a lot more.
Edge and cloud computing: As plant data contains crucial information, maintaining data availability is highly important. Similarly, processing data in time and making it available anywhere, anytime, is also crucial. Manufacturing industries are increasingly adopting these two technologies to integrate industrial processes by gathering, storing and processing critical data.
Cyber Security: As IT and OT domains converge, technology and processes are intertwined, leading to security challenges. Security governance programs, cyber security maturity assessment, investing in secure IoT platforms are a few important measures at the centre of every digital roadmap. With various technologies infiltrating the OT domain, each with different security features, a methodical evaluation of complete cyber security can protect manufacturing plants from security threats.
'Manufacturing' economy revival
There is an increasing push towards shifting to a manufacturing-based economy, with global supply disruptions both necessitating increased local production and creating an opportune moment for India to emerge as the world's next manufacturing hub. In this context, manufacturing has emerged as one of the highest contributors to the growth of the Indian economy. However, manufacturing industries worldwide and in India have been on pause during the two waves of COVID-19 in two consecutive years. Lack of human resources and proper channels for carrying out most operations also made manufacturing industries' output fall by 36% in 2020.
On the other hand, COVID 19 has also upped the ante on digital adoption. Gradually, technology is being channelised to manage processes/systems remotely, to safeguard against unforeseen events like the pandemic. The technologies mentioned above have also matured in recent years and are finding practical applications in factories. The pandemic induced a push for both digitalisation and manufacturing in the economy, and India is now aspiring to become a manufacturing powerhouse.
Given that Indian manufacturers rely heavily on their smaller and medium counterparts in the supply chain, strengthening local industries is highly important. With the Indian government announcing initiatives such as #VocalforLocal, small and medium-sized industries in India are gaining strength. However, dynamic responses and flexible supply chains are essential for large scale manufacturing, and India continues to lack in this regard. We have lots to learn from China's establishment of massive infrastructure for goods movement a few decades ago. This gave them a phenomenal advantage in meeting the large demands of the supply chain. Having said that, this is a definite opportunity for India to capitalise. Further, with digital transformation enablers like robotics, Additive Manufacturing, digital twins, AI/ML, etc., manufacturing can become more automated, agile and adaptable.
Industry 4.0 estimates that a global opportunity mounting to a scale of $45 trillion is yet to be explored. For manufacturers to realise this opportunity, it is crucial that engineers keep themselves abreast with the best practices in the industry. Furthermore, they must keep themselves away from prevalent stigmas and barriers and allow themselves to think out of the box. This will also enable the growth of the manufacturing sector's contribution to the GDP, which is currently at 16-17%.
By implementing new technologies, factories can find and analyse their current/past losses in material, man, methods, machines and money. By optimising the overall process, they will increase productivity, efficiency and quality. When quality is improved, global reach becomes automatically easier.
Industry 4.0 heralds an avenue of potential for innovative solutions, and there are definitely a lot of opportunities for manufacturing industries to reap maximum benefits from them. Despite the challenges and risks, manufacturers from across the globe are adapting to the changing technology landscape to stay competitive and discover new streams of revenues.