7 June 2023

The revolution will be digital: How digital technologies are transforming manufacturing

Skip ahead ten years and what does manufacturing look like? We predict that advanced technology will be so much a part of how we make things, ‘digital’ will go without saying.

In ten years’ time, we won’t be talking about digital manufacturing at all. Advanced technology will be so much a part of how we make things, ‘digital’ will go without saying. With tools such as artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), big data analytics and robotics coming together in real-time, we’re seeing a new era of smart manufacturing.

That may seem a leap into the unknown for those at the start of their journey, but the key is in the word ‘tools’. Know what’s what, know what it can do for you and digital technologies give you the potential to transform your production lines, products and performance.


Enhanced automation and robotics

Digital technology has led to the development of ‘intelligent’ machines capable of performing repetitive tasks with precision, speed and reliability. These smart robots may be the first thing you think of when picturing digital technologies. They can handle intricate assembly processes, carry out quality inspections, and operate in hazardous environments, reducing human intervention and minimising the risk of accidents.

Automation not only improves productivity. It allows manufacturers to make better use of their workforce by reskilling people for more complex or creative tasks, making work more meaningful and rewarding. Collaborative robots (cobots) can work alongside human workers, enhancing productivity and safety.

“I tend to believe the robot is probably the biggest innovation we’ve ever seen in manufacturing,” says Mike Wilson, the MTC’s Chief Automation Officer.

Robots are estimated to have contributed 0.36% annually to labour productivity growth over the 14 years to 2007. This is higher than the steam engine achieved over its most impactful 60 years (1850-1910)

“And we’re still in the early stages of robotics, with the most uptake and the most gains seen in the automotive and electronics sectors. The potential for wider manufacturing and other industries is huge.

“We have a growing number of projects with SME clients where we’re advising and helping them as they adopt robot and automation technologies,” he adds. “It can be difficult for manufacturers to get impartial or comprehensive advice as so many solutions are tied to suppliers. It’s great to see SMEs, who have so much to gain from automation, tapping into our independent support around technology and suppliers.”


Industrial Internet of Things, connectivity and collecting manufacturing data

 The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has revolutionised the way machines and devices communicate with each other. By embedding sensors, processors and connectivity into manufacturing equipment, companies are collecting real-time data on machine performance, energy consumption and production metrics. By connecting this data and the equipment together, potential faults can be detected and corrected before they cause major disruptions.

The IIoT also promises to offer seamless communication between manufacturers, suppliers and customers, streamlining operations and reducing costs.

Example image of robotic car manufacturing

Data analytics and artificial intelligence in manufacturing

 The vast amount of data generated in manufacturing processes can offer valuable insights into production optimisation, predictive maintenance and supply chain management.

AI-powered algorithms can identify patterns, detect issues, help proactive decision-making around inventory levels, predict equipment failures and inform fine-tuning of production processes for better quality control. This means that manufacturers can act faster and with more flexibility, boosting performance.

Data-driven manufacturing also empowers companies to customise products according to customer preferences, increasing their competitiveness in the market.

“I’d go as far as to say that something as simple as value-stream mapping is one of the greatest innovations in the manufacturing world,” says Prof. Rab Scott, Director of Industrial Digitalisation at the University of Sheffield AMRC.

“It’s said that time saved on a non-critical activity is an illusion because all you’re doing is creating a bottleneck elsewhere. Understanding process flow and identifying and removing those bottlenecks has been a game-changer.”


Augmented reality, virtual reality and digital twins

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have moved well beyond the confines of the imaginations of science fiction writers. Manufacturers can now use VR to provide immersive training experiences for their people, helping them learn new processes. AR is also being used troubleshoot issues more effectively. By overlaying digital information onto physical equipment on the shopfloor, AR can also help technicians with their maintenance tasks in real-time.

Take that a step further and you have digital twin technology – cyber-physical systems made by connecting physical assets to virtual replicas. These twins can then be used to simulate and optimise production processes, perform predictive maintenance, and conduct what-if analysis.


Additive manufacturing

You may have first seen 3D-printing with small-scale plastic or resin production in the spare room of a friend or colleague. But this and more complex forms of additive manufacturing, using materials such as steel or titanium, have disrupted traditional manufacturing processes by increasing speed and precision in making complicated and customised components at any scale. Manufacturers who’ve adopted this technology have reduced lead times, cut waste and gained more design flexibility.

The benefits of additive manufacturing stem from the direct connection between a full digital model and the resulting physical object. It means manufacturers can streamline prototyping, create on-demand spare parts, and manufacture end-use products. Additive manufacturing also creates possibilities for decentralised production, as digital files can be shared around the world. This could reduce the global need for long-distance shipping and minimise a product’s carbon footprint.


Smart supply chain management

It’s not only connecting data across a production line that helps to make manufacturing more productive. By integrating production line and product tracking data with technologies such as cloud computing, AI and blockchain, manufacturers can optimise inventory management and monitor the movement of goods in real-time, helping to enhance overall supply chain resilience.

Smart sensors can track products from raw material sourcing to delivery, ensuring compliance with quality standards and regulations. Digital platforms also make communication and collaboration easier among suppliers, manufacturers and customers. This allows real-time demand forecasting and responsive production planning, so that there’s less impact on manufacturers further down the supply chain when circumstances change.


A post-digital future?

So, skip ahead ten years, and what does manufacturing look like?

“Undoubtedly very different,” predicts Rab Scott. “In 2016, Japan introduced the concept of Society 5.0, which has now evolved into Industry 5.0. It’s actually a move away from the dystopian view that Industry 4.0 presented, and is more focused on the human in manufacturing.

In 10 years, we won’t be talking about digital manufacturing, because all manufacturing will be inherently digital, but with the human worker at the heart of operations.

Small batch production will be economically viable for larger manufacturers, and the traditional ‘shopfloor’ will be unrecognisable, with robots, cobots and much more use of automated guided vehicles all communicating with each other.

Rab is particularly excited about the potential for digital technologies to make factory roles easier and more fulfilling, alongside environmental and economic sustainability. “Several centres are looking at augmented reality and digital work instructions, for example,” he says. “That’s exactly where manufacturing should be heading.”

Mike Wilson agrees. “There will be much greater use of robots and automation to perform the majority of the mundane, arduous and dangerous tasks,” he says. “Staff will be working alongside these machines performing tasks that require our human capabilities – dexterity, senses and intelligence.

The factory will become an environment where machines and people are working together, with high levels of efficiency and agility to meet customer requirements.


This article is part of a series featuring key insights on digital manufacturing for SMEs. Find out more about the cyber security in manufacturing here.

Business challenges Business growth and scaling Digitalisation National and global challenges Net zero Skills and training Supply chain development Sustainability Technology development
Additive manufacturing (3D printing) Advanced assembly Augmented reality (AR) Automation Digital technologies Flexible manufacturing High value design Modelling and simulation Virtual reality (VR) Visualisation
Who We Work With
Industry Large and multinationals SMEs and Entreuprenuers

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