Mad science meets modern manufacturing: Top technologies that will transform the manufacturing landscape

By Michelle Drew Rodriguez

“Advanced technologies” is not a new topic within manufacturing conversations. From the birth of mass automation to the creation of the first 3D printed car, innovative technologies and approaches are continually disrupting the manufacturing industry. But there’s a case to be made that today’s emerging technologies represent an order-of-magnitude shift and will fundamentally transform the manufacturing industry, as the digital and physical worlds collide in this fourth industrial revolution, more rapidly than most would predict.

It’s not just that they deliver new capabilities. What’s different this time are the ways and pace these technologies converge to reinforce each other, learn on their own, and accelerate their own development at an exponential pace. Alone, each of these technologies is promising. Taken together, they have the potential to unlock new opportunities and drive global manufacturing competitiveness to new heights.

This isn’t futurism. And it isn’t pure science waiting for an application outside the lab. These technologies exist today and are already reshaping the industries using them. What remains to be written is what we will make of them: Who will embrace them for what purposes? How will one or more of these technologies combine in ways we haven’t seen yet? What will happen as a result?

In one of our recent studies, Deloitte and the Council on Competitiveness asked manufacturing executives around the world to rank the importance of advanced manufacturing technologies most vital to their company’s future competitiveness. These are the ten technologies manufacturing executives said have the greatest potential to transform their companies.

(Click on the image to enlarge.)

  1. Predictive analytics. When statistical and analytical techniques help create mathematical models that can predict likely future events or behaviors, numbers are doing more than just counting. On the roads, predictive models may help self-driving cars avoid accidents and obliterate urban traffic jams entirely. Predictions of consumer behavior will better inform product design and create more value to the end user. Predictive analytics is already helping manufacturers make better business decisions, pinpoint quality and production issues, as well as contribute to efficiencies throughout the organization as well as their broader supply networks.
  2. Smart, connected products.This is one element of the expanding Internet of Things (IoT)–software, sensors, and connectivity that let objects interact digitally. Think of radio-frequency identification (RFID), which predicted retailer’s inventory needs in real-time, as only an early baby step in this evolution. In this new world, data–along with physical products–are a source of value. Smart wearables that regulate health, stress levels, and other key vitals; automobiles connected to their makers (i.e., manufacturers) as well as to each other (V2V) or their environment (V2I); homes that adapt to their masters’ (i.e., homeowners’) every preference (like temperature, lighting, and sound) and optimizes energy and other systems accordingly. These are just a few examples of how smart products/IoT technologies are evolving.
  3. Advanced materials. Huge transformations are occurring in virtually all areas of material science with superior performance characteristics being created at an exponential pace. Metal alloys become lighter and stronger. Ceramics and composites have increasingly custom-designed thermal, magnetic, optical, and electrical properties to suit specialized needs. “Critical materials” are increasingly used in the clean energy areas, like thin-film solar cells, future grid-storage technologies, and potentially even in the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. And green, sustainable, bio-based polymers replace petroleum-based plastics in many applications. All of these developments are unfolding already. Manufacturers are busy exploring their potential across the board, as the ability to design and build at the nano-scale is upon us.
  4. Smart factories. IoT isn’t just about the things we make. It’s also about where and how we make them. Smart factories will bring the assembly line and all elements of the process online and integrated with upstream and downstream components, making the act of manufacturing more precise, efficient, proactive, and nimble. New levels of smart manufacturing automation across industry sectors and value chains are already occurring as manufacturers integrate information technology (IT) and operations technology (OT) and shift toward a physical-to-digital-to-physical connection. With IoT and connectivity, it is possible to build smarter supply chains that integrate with optimized manufacturing processes and deliver impact across the end-to-end manufacturing value chain.
  5. Digital design, simulation, and integration. Now the entire process from concept to design to prototype can take place inside the computer–which means faster iteration at a significantly lower cost. Tools such as computer-aided design and engineering software allow for product and process simulation and optimization digitally throughout the development cycle, reducing the need for costly prototypes. And digital linkages throughout the broader value chain would enable faster, cheaper, and more complex systems to be developed through a highly coordinated closed-loop virtual design process. From aircraft parts to medical devices to microchips, the first physical product is a lot closer to its finished form, with less trial and error, which ultimately means an increasingly rapid speed to market.
  6. High-performance computing. Don’t we already have that? Of course. We thought so in 1985 too. But now, aggregated systems are passing the teraflop barrier (1012 floating point operations per second) and taking on the most complex science, engineering, and business problems in the world. High-performance computing is transforming the manufacturing industry thanks to the ability to model components and test systems without producing physical prototypes, thus shortening discovery times and accelerating product development. Manufacturers can take advantage of these capabilities in developing new, innovative solutions when designing complex parts and systems, such as aircraft engines, or even the potential to tailor pharmaceutical products and drugs according to the requirement of an individual consumer.
  7. Advanced robotics. “Old” robots could perform specific scripted tasks and respond to anticipated stimuli. Their descendants use artificial intelligence and machine learning to carry out complex missions and adapt with limited human intervention required. They can improve their performance through experience and interact meaningfully with people in real time. The promising future applications in manufacturing are bountiful.
  8. Additive manufacturing. 3D printing, as it’s also widely called, upends old assumptions about scale, volume, customization, geography, and supply chain. It stands to change not only how things are made, but which things are made (and where). It opens the door to developments such as co-creating products with customers, embedding electronics directly into parts, and/or producing intricate products which would be impossible to make through traditional methods. It can also make it more cost-efficient to turn out products at low volume, replace parts in remote locations, and/or produce items that would otherwise be considered obsolete.
  9. Open-source design and direct customer input. Ideas aren’t a technology, but the means to capture them are. Advances in technology give manufacturers the ability to connect instantly with customers, researchers, and other stakeholders. When innovators solicit ideas and opinions, the collective power of the input they receive has the capacity to outstrip what used to happen inside four closely guarded walls. No one company employs all the smartest people in the world – time for companies to tap into the potential of a much broader ecosystem.
  10. Augmented reality. By combining computer vision with object recognition, new technologies “overlay” the physical world with digital information that users can manipulate and use to enhance the world around them. The potential applications range from a virtual store to the shop floor. For example, augmented and/or virtual reality (AR/VR) could be used to enhance interactive consumer experiences in a retail setting or gather consumer preferences before a physical product is even built. It can help train line workers real time on the shop floor in new manufacturing process techniques, overlay digital designs over the physical product, or even enable access to remote experts thousands of miles away to help technicians solve issues hands-free. Some manufacturers are also already using these technologies to overlay information on real assemblies to evaluate and to determine real-time if a complex product will meet design and quality specifications.

As manufacturers weave these technologies into the ways they work and establish new capabilities, the implications are endless. The way we make things will change, yes—but so will the strategies about what to make, where, and for whom. Talent strategies will have to adapt to the new reality. So will supply chains, customer relationships, and the definition of “rapid.”

Manufacturing leaders shouldn’t view these tech trends discretely. They are evolving together and reinforcing each other in unpredictable ways. Industry leaders who see the combinations and imagine the possibilities first may have an advantage over those who don’t.

Note: If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the US innovation ecosystem, the most promising technologies impacting the manufacturing industry, as well as current and future trends in US and global scientific research and development (R&D), check out our Advanced Technologies Initiative study.

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