With Industry 4.0 going strong, the realm of industrial equipment is certainly exciting, and 2018 holds more promise than ever. Single Source has worked with clients in this industry for decades, so we like to keep a pulse on the trends and innovations. Here are a just a few of the latest developments, from technological to strategic to transformative.
The Internet of Things (IoT)
It's impossible to mention innovation these days without mentioning IoT, which offers infinite possibilities to the industrial equipment industry. Forbes Insights recently outlined several areas where data from networked devices is having the most impact. One is product optimization: "For example, when IoT-based solutions are introduced on the factory floor, they can have a dramatic impact on overall quality by helping manufacturers detect substandard materials and ensuring adherence to product specifications. For brands, the resulting higher level of quality generates cost savings throughout a product’s life cycle."
Another is supply chain management, where the IoT can streamline the costs of distribution and logistics in many types of commercial and industrial enterprises. The IoT can also improve asset tracking and management, providing important information about the location, health, and efficiency of equipment, including reducing downtime. But perhaps most powerfully, when customers have software that lets them leverage IoT data to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and imprive productivity, their satisfaction and loyalty will be positively affected.
As manufacturing becomes commoditized and increased competition decreases prices, differentiating by shifting to a service-centric business model can be key to profitability. Based on surveys from Constellation research, "78% of manufacturers plan to focus growth on post-sale business models by 2020. Organizations are moving from products to services, services to experiences, experiences to insights, insights to brand promises." One great example is a corporate furniture company which transformed from pure manufacturing to offering interior consulting for offices. Another is a cleaning product manufacturer that began offering delivery and service dosing systems. Offering services like these, based on years of experience, provides value to customers that lasts beyond trends.
Once just a novelty, 3D printing seems ready to move toward a more mature phase, though it's nowhere near outright replacing traditional manufacturing. A blended model, called additive manufacturing, offers the best of both worlds and can make the most sense fiscally. As Christine LaFave Grace writes in an article for PlantServices, "Lower production costs and faster, more-flexible, more on-demand production are central to the business case for additive manufacturing. The key to achieving these benefits, though – to making 3D printing efficient and cost-effective in any given organization – is to identify the appropriate applications and use cases for it. Here’s where experts in 3D printing technology say its light shines brightest – and what organizations need to be aware of as they make decisions about where and whether 3D printing makes sense for them." An area where additive manufacturing excels is in product prototyping and design.
Robotic technology continues to leap foward. In his article "The State of Industrial Robots" for New Equipment Digest, Matt LaWell wrote, "This is pretty much the golden age." Constellation Research estimates that by 2020, over three million industrial robots will be in use. Compared to robots of past decades, newer models are more efficient, more collaborative, more aesthetic, and have better vision and finer motor skills. Some even incorporate soft, flexible grips like an octopus arm.
Deep learning and artificial intelligence are also contributing to robots' advances. Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, explained, "Some of the new technologies have made robots a little bit easier to use. You can implement them and have them up and running without a lot of time or resources put into hiring system integrators. Sometimes less floor space is required with these new robots. The promise is that these robots are safer, easier to install, and easier to program — because you don’t really program them, you just move them around.”
For instances when robots still can't quite meet the abilities of human workers, industrial exoskeletons pairs humans' mobility and problem solving with machines' physical and cognitive strengths. Ford Motor Company has been rolling out exoskeletons that give its staff added strength and help prevent injuries from repetitive or strenuous motions. Per a Reuters article, "If you try one on, it feels like an empty backpack, but it enables you to hold a weight such as a heavy wrench straight out in front of you indefinitely and without strain." The investment in bionic wearables is thus also an HR investment, which can be crucial as the industry faces a labor gap.