With the extensive growth researchers are forecasting in U.S. manufacturing, manufacturers across the country are focusing on modernizing their plant floors. More than half of manufacturing leaders expect revenues to grow 5 percent or more each year over the next five years, according to a recent report from IndustryWeek, “The Future of Manufacturing: 2020 and Beyond.” As we look forward to 2017, there will be substantial opportunities for manufacturers and integrators to implement new automation technologies and revolutionize manufacturing processes that will be essential to ushering in the next era of American manufacturing.
As companies look to expand and take advantage of new opportunities in the coming months, a challenge many will face is one of too many choices and not enough time. With so many new technologies available—3D vision, robotics and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) interconnectivity—companies might be wondering what to invest in first, how do make the move from outdated machines to a modern, interconnected manufacturing floor, or how to reduce waste and improve profits through automation. These challenges are compounded by the fact that businesses need to make these decisions quickly to capture market share or defend current positions.
Fortunately, we have seen a significant shift in sentiment toward system integrators over the past 12-18 months. In the past, system integrators were brought in to provide specific services or equipment. Clients are now much more collaborative, often sharing their business challenges and one- to three-year goals. This open dialogue allows integrators to obtain a greater understanding of business objectives, helping them provide more comprehensive solutions to improve the efficiency of manufacturing operations. In this role, system integrators act as an extension of the client’s internal team and have a vested interest in the long-term health of the customer. We see this trend continuing as we move forward into the future of U.S. manufacturing.
As companies look to reshore some of their manufacturing facilities in the U.S., they will be faced with keeping production costs low and finding adequate staff to meet their needs. Companies that have been manufacturing overseas might be accustomed to aggressive production cost targets, higher labor availability and lower overall manufacturing expenses. These scenarios might be difficult for companies, but they will also provide opportunities to refine and update antiquated manufacturing practices.
Robotic work cells and IIoT promise to deliver profound and lasting changes to the way goods are manufactured. Both technologies not only address short-term issues like labor shortages and production visibility, but also provide long-term advantages like flexible scalability and preventive analytics.
Automated robotic work cells address the labor shortage problem head on. Robots can run as little or as much as needed and always stand at the ready. This flexibility allows companies to ebb and flow around production seasonality; ramping up during peak periods and slowing during off times all without adding or subtracting labor. Further, as the definition of collaborative robots continues to expand, we are creating new ways for robots and humans to work together safely and efficiently.
Whether it is a truly collaborative robot or a work cell that uses scanning safety technologies, robots are quickly moving to the center of production environments across numerous industries. The Robotics Industry Association has reported significant growth in industrial robot installations through the first quarters of 2016. I agree with industry experts, and believe this trend will continue to accelerate through the end of the decade.
Arguably, the most impactful change we will soon see in manufacturing is the expanded usage of IIoT technologies. IIoT has been talked about for the past few years, but adoption rates have been slow. Some of the world’s largest manufacturers are already investing heavily in these technologies because they see the immediate benefits in having real-time data and cloud-based access. I believe we will see more widespread adoption in 2017, as leading companies like Rockwell Automation provide enterprise solutions that connect all equipment on a manufacturing floor.
This interconnectivity will allow operators to immediately spot areas of waste or bottlenecks in production. Predictive analytics will provide companies with the ability to proactively plan their maintenance strategies so components can be replaced before they fail, allowing a production environment that provides real-time data. Additionally, predictive analytics allows operators to quickly and easily identify areas of waste, allowing companies to reduce waste and increase profit.
As we go into the holiday season and then into 2017, I am very optimistic about the state of American manufacturing and industrial automation.
Michael Lindley is vice president of business development and marketing at Concept Systems Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association. See Concept Systems’ profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.