Digital transformation has been on business leaders’ minds for years now. Across industries and sectors, organizations have invested trillions of dollars in digital tools to streamline business functions, drive productivity and develop a deeper understanding of their performance. And, in the past few years, manufacturers have finally been able to get in on the process.
Manufacturing’s lagging adoption is not the fault of its leaders. The first wave of enterprise digitalization solutions focused squarely on software and solutions designed to streamline offices and enterprise operations. Information technology (IT), not operations technology (OT), ruled the day. Now, advancements in industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices have turned digitalized manufacturing from an idealistic future into a realistic, achievable present.
Still, though, manufacturing has a way to go. The past year set the stage for mature digital manufacturing, as economic and social factors that demanded a shift in approach made headlines alongside news of extraordinary advancements in technology. Now, with the initial investments in digital transformation behind them, manufacturers will be looking to mature their systems to derive even more value.
Manufacturers faced significant challenges over the past few years, with many turning to smaller-scale tech investments to support their efforts. Now, with those initial investments made and the returns evident, leaders within the industry are on the path to maturity. And the technologies outlined below, which are making headlines as we round out 2023, are perfectly aligned with that goal.
AI: The new “dot com”
Artificial intelligence is having its moment, and rightly so. Its potential to change business and daily life as we know it is not unlike that of the internet in its earliest days. Though just 36% of manufacturers currently use AI (source: Wipfli), industry leaders are eager to integrate AI at every step of the journey. In a recent Parsec study, more than half of leaders (52%) said it was “very” or “extremely” important that their enterprise solutions have AI or machine learning (ML) capabilities and, according to Wipfli’s research, 50% of manufacturers plan to invest in robotics and automation.
It makes sense, and it’s the reason manufacturing execution systems (MES) are rising in popularity at a rapid clip. Bolstering digitalized systems with AI/ML capabilities will elevate the value of investments by contextualizing performance metrics to illustrate opportunities for strategic adjustments. Furthermore, the increased automation capabilities that AI provides will help manufacturers transition their reporting, record-keeping, data collection, scheduling and other administrative practices from analog methods. This will not only increase efficiency but get businesses one step closer to truly connected operations.
Though cloud-based builds are common in modern enterprises, many cloud transitions are still occurring throughout manufacturing. After all, other sectors had a significant head start on industrial manufacturing. However, recent advancements in the technologies that support connectivity and bandwidth reliability between sites and the cloud may help manufacturing get up to speed more quickly than many expected.
As engineers pursue progress in edge computing, IIoT device design and other related fields, the potential value of cloud-based options will only grow. That will drive improvements to the efficacy of these solutions, encouraging manufacturers with real- time application needs to continue to embrace cloud offerings.
Cyber-physical risk management
For all of this to become a reality, industrial manufacturing IT teams need to familiarize themselves with the unique security demands of cloud-based networks. MES applications, for example, require integrations between physical equipment and digital systems. Not only does this increase the potential for exposure at large, it opens equipment to cyber- attacks. This gives bad actors the chance to turn a digital attack into physical consequences—like work stoppage, equipment damage, or even explosions or contamination of materials.
The prospect of managing the unique risks and needs within operational systems has been a hindrance to manufacturers’ adoption of digital systems. While specialized OT cyber solutions do exist, businesses often—understandably—found that they did not yet have the IT maturity to safely manage business-critical applications. That’s unlikely to change in 2024. However, recent events have raised the profile of OT cyber concerns, expanding knowledge and encouraging progress in the field. With both manufacturing digitalization solutions maturing and the field of OT cyber pushing ahead, the task of balancing cyber- physical risk in OT environments will become more manageable.
Be it in a private cloud, data center or even on-prem hosting, 2024 is likely to usher in a shift in the accessibility of containers. Their notable benefits—like portability, scalability and agility—have made them desirable, but the tools and expertise needed to host them were expensive and impeded use.
Now, containers are on their way to commoditization, not unlike virtual machines (VMs) before them. As skills in this space become more common and the equipment and tools needed to support the model become more widespread, manufacturers will be able to take advantage of the benefits of the model to mature their systems.