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Digitally transforming the manufacturing industry

Manufacturing remains a critical force in the UK economy. In recent years, the sector has changed considerably, with the rapid development of digital technology bringing light to new opportunities and challenges.

Advances in automation and new types of manufacturing processes, alongside significant developments in existing technologies, such as 3D printing, are part of an ongoing transformation within the industry. To thrive, today’s manufacturers need to embrace new challenges and continually reimagine processes and production methods.

As an enabler of faster change and innovation, digitalisation has swept across multiple industries, offering opportunities for industry leaders to improve and transform their business processes, enabling them to compete in an environment where being first-to-market is key and the pressure is constantly on.

Harnessing new business models is always important for those hoping to become successful, but particularly so in this fast-paced digital era. Industry 4.0, a model built around digital innovation in products, processes and business models, offers opportunities that we simply cannot afford to miss. The manufacturing industry in particular is increasingly being shaped by customer demand. Customers want rapidly produced parts to be made readily available in a matter of days and manufacturers are faced with the challenge of generating these at a speed and with a quality that will ensure customer satisfaction.

Customisation and personalisation has been democratised and people want their own mark stamped on a product. Moreover, it’s not just about making better products, it is also about driving down development and production costs and getting new products to market faster. Benefits of this sort easily translate into real financial gains for a business.

Ideas quickly becoming reality

Recent developments empowered by the digital economy have been very helpful in providing manufacturers with the versatility and mass-scale production needed to be successful in the highly competitive environment in which they operate, enabling them to eliminate short-term forecasting and become more near term demand-driven and disruptive.

CAD screens can help make ideas quickly become reality through the use of automated 3D printing techniques, CNC (computerised numerical control) machining and advanced injection moulding, allowing the production of prototype components within a couple of days of their designs being submitted. This increasing efficiency in the industry means, simply, that the future of making things is changing. 3D printing, in particular, lends itself to short production runs and quick-turn prototyping.

The ability to print multiple components simultaneously – particularly when the components are intricate – clearly demonstrates the benefits that 3D printing can offer. Industries such as aerospace, energy and medicine are already benefits of the introduction of 3D printing technologies, which are only likely to develop and spread into other industries. Whether it’s providing children with disabilities in developing countries with access to high-quality and better-fitting prosthetics, or NASA funded projects such as Archinaut, the opportunities for success and human progress are greater than ever.

Digitally connecting the dots

Moreover, and looking ahead, manufacturing is in a fantastic position to benefit from the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). In fact, manufacturers utilising IoT solutions already saw an average 28.5 per cent increase in revenue between 2013 and 2014 according to a TATA Consultancy Survey, and this is only likely to rise further in the coming years.

Manufacturers are likely to adopt technologies that will allow them to transform everything from their operating models and digitally connected processes, to their internal associates and external partners in the future. Additionally, information about product usage, production capabilities and market and customer requirements is likely to be shared and analysed much faster than ever before. With the increasing demand for fast and high-quality produced parts and the convergence of software and hardware, the importance of these techniques is likely to grow and develop further. To plan the journey toward realising the aspiration of being a “digital enterprise”, on-demand manufacturing is key.

The next generation of manufacturing talent has the opportunity to ‘digitally connect the dots’ of a modern factory floor to gain smarter ‘real-time’ insight over their competition.

Innovative manufacturing companies need to differentiate themselves by implementing high-tech processes that will allow them to become ‘leaders’ not followers in a fast-moving and ever-changing industry.

Damian Hennessey, Director, Proto Labs

Image source: Shutterstock/SFC