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5 Reasons to Get Excited About Smart Manufacturing

What we can achieve has the potential to change -- and save -- lives.

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I have been writing about smart manufacturing since terms like Industry 4.0 and Industrial IoT were first used close to a decade ago, and I have to admit I have been through waves of excitement, anticipation and disappointment in that time.

But every now and then, something happens to get me back on board and re-energized about the whole idea of the ideals of smart manufacturing and the Industry 4.0 nirvana that has been promised but as yet not delivered. This week, a good friend of mine told me he’d been hired as VP of smart manufacturing by a well-funded biosciences startup that sees smart manufacturing as the core of its business model. When we first chatted about his remit, I was more than a little envious. Having carte blanche to build a new supply chain and manufacturing ecosystem is an amazing opportunity. I started to think about why now is the perfect time to undertake such a project and for everyone to put more momentum into smart-factory evolution.

Related: The Key Role Taiwan Will Play in Industry 4.0

1. The pandemic has accelerated desire and exposed weaknesses

The digital transformation of manufacturing and supply chains is not a result of the pandemic, but the pandemic has certainly fueled the fire, exposing weaknesses in existing models and underlining the need to shake things up. To many in manufacturing, Covid-19 was the disruption of the trade war between the U.S. and China before the semiconductor shortages. The industry has become increasingly used to, and hopefully resilient to, constant change and disruption, but this one was huge and global and will have knock-on effects that impact the way we work forever. 

The pandemic exposed an over reliance on certain geographies. It exposed the lack of visibility in many supply chains. It exposed issues relating to supply-chain security. And it underlined just how slowly we have been in adopting the ideal of smart manufacturing and Industry 4.0.

2. Everyone cares, including governments

Five years ago, most smart-manufacturing seminars were a geekfest, full of early adopters and those wicked smart engineers developing technology. What’s more, supply chain was not a topic that made headline news. Now it does occupy the mainstream news media and with surprising regularity. 

Everyone now cares about how, and even more importantly where, things are made. Supply-chain resilience is increasingly important, and supply-chain security is now a thing, a big thing! And it’s not just toilet rolls and vaccines that people care about. 

Just as those in the industry care, the passion for smart-manufacturing and supply-chain security and resilience is finding its way to the very top of governments. Presidents and prime ministers are now talking about manufacturing and supply chain as a matter of national security and something that will be a key part of the post-pandemic recovery. Many governments have put in place programs and financial support for smart-manufacturing solutions, particularly in industries that they see as key, be that the local production of vaccines, the semiconductors that provide intelligence inside almost every consumer product or the raw materials that are used in key industries like space travel, electric vehicles and defense.

Related: Indian Entrepreneurs and Their Stake in the Manufacturing Industry

3. Funding is more widely available

Many might feel that governments are actually late to this party and that they are behind the curve that has been led by great innovation supported by access to capital to turn some amazing ideas into reality. For the last five years, new technology has seen a real growth in available funding, and more recently, we’ve seen funds that have focused heavily on transformative manufacturing and supply-chain technology. We’ve also seen some larger technology startups successfully IPO directly or through the SPAC route.

There is no doubt that access to funding is an accelerant towards smarter solutions, but new funding is bringing new companies, people and ideas to the sector. Industries supported by solid funding attract more free thinking and disruptive innovation, and that’s both exciting and game changing. 

4. Technology is mature and capable

A solid funding environment is attracting plenty of great startups to the manufacturing world, and these companies are taking a fresh look at the industry. Meanwhile, companies with decades of experience have been developing their own technology to be smarter, faster more automated and, in some cases, even autonomous. 

In the early years of the fourth industrial revolution, connectivity was perhaps the biggest issue, and while many standards and options still exist, there is no doubt that full connectivity can be achieved without too much cost or inconvenience. With that solid foundation in place, pretty much every machine can be connected and smart. And they’re getting much smarter as every equipment vendor develops more automation, better domain expertise and leverages ingredient technologies like robotics and AI.

The industry is now delivering an impressive combination of incremental evolutionary improvement of machines processes and materials, as well as game-changing technologies like fully autonomous facilities or asset-light manufacturing ecosystems with AI and machine learning at their core.

Related: Asian Economies Are Leading the Digital-Transformation Race

5. The digital dividend is clearer and larger

As someone who has spent close to 40 years in the manufacturing industry, and is perhaps a bit of a closet geek, it is easy for me to get excited about what we can do with technology. But what is really exciting is what we can achieve — and what we are achieving!

The dividend of smart manufacturing will be products with better quality, services and medical outcomes thanks to game-changing bioscience; increased space exploration; better electric vehicles; a more efficient and inclusive industry; well-paid, safe, sustainable jobs; sustainable products; and resilient supply chains that have less negative impact on the earth. In some cases, this could mean life-changing and life-saving technology becoming accessible where previously costs were so prohibitively high that many were excluded.

Philip Stoten

Written By

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Philip has been in the manufacturing industry since the 1980s, starting his career as a designer of electronics products and working in numerous manufacturing and management roles. He has founded several companies, publications, events, video shows and podcasts.