The manufacturing industry is in almost constant change. The way we make things – from cars to shoes to flossing – has changed dramatically in the last 100 years, and the next 100 are sure to be just as dramatic. So what are the big changes ahead? What does the near future of manufacturing look like? To get a hint, we spoke to Willem Sundblad, founder and CEO of Oden Technologies and all-round manufacturing expert. Here are three big things we can expect in manufacturing in the years to come:
Reconstruction for resilience
A number of unexpected disruptions rocked manufacturing over the past year. The first (and most profound) was the coronavirus pandemic, which not only resulted in widespread factory closures, but also a massive shift in people’s consumer behavior. This ultimately led to shortages of a wide range of goods – from condoms to aluminum cans to computer chips. And that was just the beginning.
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“COVID was one thing,” says Sundblad, “but we also had other disruptions. The effects of the blockade of the Suez Canal, for example, are still under way. Then there were the winter storms in Texas earlier this year that knocked out the entire petrochemical raw materials industry, which is in everything made of plastic, which is a lot of stuff. “
Collectively, these events have exposed the fragility of global supply chains. We have now seen direct evidence of how a seemingly small and isolated incident can create a ripple effect that brings an entire industry to a standstill – and Sundblad points out that the past year has drawn manufacturers’ attention to this vulnerability. He anticipates that many steps will be taken over the next few years to restructure their operations to make them more resilient in the face of disruptions.
“What you really want to do,” says Sundblad, “is promote a better ecosystem in the US with closer ties between customers and suppliers so you can deal with disruption much better and actually have an ecosystem closer to you do not send everything from China. “
Mastering the shortage of skilled workers
As if the volatile supply chains weren’t enough of a challenge, Sundblad also expects the manufacturing sector to face increasing labor shortages over the next few years. Why? Put simply, more people are retiring from production than entering working life.
“This has actually been discussed in production for years,” says Sundblad, “because you have an older workforce who retire with a lot of specialist knowledge. In addition, there are simply not enough young people who want to go into production. “
Sundblad points out that the latter is less a question of job availability than of job attractiveness. There are lots of manufacturing jobs, but working in a factory and making parts just isn’t as enticing as working for a trendy Silicon Valley software startup that has a ping pong table in the break room and free kombucha on tap.
“If you want to attract young people to production,” says Sundblad, “it has to be really convincing. And that means offering new digital tools, creating really cool things that really make an impact, and giving people the opportunity to see the fruits of their labor. I think these are things that young people really want. “
Technology to the rescue?
However, it is not all doom and darkness. Despite the challenges the manufacturing industry is currently facing (and will face in the years to come), Sundblad remains optimistic. With the right use of technology, he believes it is entirely possible to alleviate some of the emerging problems facing the industry.
“COVID was a massive catalyst for the introduction of new technologies in manufacturing,” he explains. “For example, before COVID, augmented reality was a beautiful, shiny toy. It was one of those things that were nice to have but not strictly necessary – so nobody really used it. But then, when suddenly people couldn’t travel to the factories anymore and we had to minimize the number of people who could work on the factory floor, AR was a huge benefit. With the right technology, operators on the factory floor could get real-time guidance from technicians and actually solve problems faster. “
In addition to AR, says Sundblad, manufacturers are also rapidly adopting technologies like machine learning, AI, and industrial IoT – and not just to replace factory workers. Instead, these systems are often intended to support human workers and make it easier to carry out certain tasks.
“With these tools, manufacturers can really analyze and optimize how they make their products,” he says. “When you do that, you can do things faster, you can do things more efficiently, and you can save both material and energy. It’s a sustainability boost for everyone. “
While technology will certainly not solve all global production problems, there are good reasons to believe that it could help manufacturers become more stable, resilient, and efficient than ever before.