It is fair if you want to slap our hands for waiting until the middle of February to make our predictions about what will happen in manufacturing during 2017, but can you blame us? This has been a rough few months for prognosticators. The Cubs won the World Series (we didn’t see that coming). The Patriots won the Super Bowl despite being down by 25 points during the third quarter. And there was the matter of an election that left a lot of pundits and professional forecasters scratching their heads. So, we’ve been a little gun shy. But what the heck? We’re ready to share what we think will be the top trends in the manufacturing sector in 2017. We’ll check in at the end of the year and see how well we did.
The Push for Greener Manufacturing Accelerates
Green manufacturing has been a concern for some time, but we think that for many manufacturers, it is poised to shift from a nice-to-have to a mission-critical priority. One way to become greener is for manufacturers to introduce Lean practices that reduce the wastes of unnecessary transportation, motion, and inventory, all of which contribute to the unnecessary use of energy. We also expect to see growth in the use of renewable energy as well as products made with recyclable or sustainable resources. Customers care more than ever about whether the products they use are produced in an ecologically sound manner, so we expect to hear more about it this year.
There Will Be Lots of Innovation Involving 3D Printing
We’ve written before about how big of an impact 3D printing will eventually have on manufacturing. It enables faster prototyping, entirely new design conceptions, and cost effective small batch, or even custom item production. The approach accelerates research and development by bypassing some of the cost and time associated with more traditional PCB fabrication methods. 3D printing will eventually find a place in factories, offices, and homes. Look for the price of 3D printers to go down, and new capabilities to be introduced.
Process Improvement will be All the Rage
A MIT study in the late 1980’s, during a time that Japanese and German cars were seen to be of much higher quality than those produced in the US, found that American companies spent twice as much on product innovation as they did on process innovation. Germans and Japanese did just the opposite. We think that as manufacturing continues to evolve, and the new digitally-enabled landscape creates opportunities for integration, leaders will begin to focus on process and workflow. Functions that once operated in silos like manufacturing, supply chain, and product developments will become linked and a more collaborative, flexible manufacturing approach will rise. Lean tools and principles will be applied to smooth the value chain, draw on the collective wisdom of all employees, and ultimately deliver more value to the customer. Cross functional boundaries will be eliminated, in favor of more connected processes and people.
The Supply Chain Becomes Increasingly Connected
Suppliers, manufacturers, customers, and end users are poised to take advantage of our increasingly connected digital world to gain more visibility and influence over the entire product lifecycle. For a long time, manufactures have focused on reducing costs and improving internal efficiency, but we predict that 2017 will be about looking outward with connected systems bringing each part of the supply chain closer together and removing friction from the manufacturing process. Systems like the one we offer our clients will become more integrated and communication will be seamless.
The Internet of Things Becomes Ubiquitous
We’re almost willing to say that the Internet of Things will no longer be “a thing” because it will be so common as to be assumed. We will see exponential proliferation in connected cars, homes, cities, appliances, health monitoring devices, and pretty much everything that has an on/off switch. The twin trend is Big Data, of course, with all those devices generating and storing an unthinkable amount of information.
Manufacturing Cybersecurity Threats Concern Everyone
There is a downside to the increasing integration and connection of our systems and devices. This transformation creates vulnerability to data breeches, disruption, malicious attacks, and cyberwarfare. While we innovate in order to bring more value to our customers, there are bad actors innovating just as rapidly to cause economic, military, or social harm. According to the most recent Manufacturing Leadership Council Cybersecurity survey, one in five manufacturing companies report that cybersecurity concerns have slowed or prevented one or more Manufacturing initiatives. More than half of respondents agree that cybersecurity concerns could hinder the adoption of new manufacturing technologies and approaches. Manufacturing leaders will spend a great deal of effort over the next months and years looking for creative ways to keep their companies and customers safe from this growing and dangerous threat.
Innovators Embrace Crowd Sourcing and Social Solutions
Ok, all that talk about cybersecurity was depressing. Let’s talk about something uplifting. We’ve noticed an accelerating trend of innovators using crowd sourcing and social networking to brainstorm new ideas. These days, if you have a glimmer of a thought, you can share it with others who will help it grow into something bigger. Stuck on a problem, or struggling to make a design work? You can literally ask the audience. Our social connectedness has given us all access to others in our field, experts, and potential customers to offer and receive real-time feedback. That will only accelerate the pace of useful invention.
Collaborative Robots Become our Friends
Here’s another cool thing that we are looking forward to more of in 2017 – collaborative robots (Co-Bots, for short). Collaborative robots are automated systems that work right next to human employees. They help their human operators with whatever task they are working on. The cost of these machines is coming down and we expect to see a spike in their use. This technology won’t be limited to the manufacturing sector. You should expect to see Co-Bots popping up all over the place, in medical settings, restaurants, distribution centers, and even retail outlets.
Customers Look for Turn-key Solutions
Manufacturing customers have figured out that all of the innovation in manufacturing systems and equipment creates an opportunity for them to choose a partner that handles a significant chunk of the product lifecycle for them. They will look for partners that address tasks like parts sourcing, inventory management, and even fulfillment. Cloud manufacturing platforms and services like MacroFab will make it possible for customers to manage projects and monitor progress while letting the partner tackle the hands-on work.
Advanced Materials Open New Possibilities
New materials like graphene and carbon nanotubes are expanding the possibilities for new products and manufacturing processes in unprecedented ways. It is impossible to predict where the introduction of these and other new materials will lead, but you can expect to see them leveraged more frequently. We also expect to see better battery options that will improve products and manufacturing equipment in unexpected ways.
This is an exciting year to be in the manufacturing industry. New technologies and ways of working are transforming how products are brought to market and expanding the ability to innovate. We expect to see many incremental improvements to processes and products and a few breakthrough, revolutionary advances. We say, bring it on.