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Predictions: 5 digital factory trends for 2018

- January 16, 2018 2:47 pm

It’s that time of year again.

Time to dust off the crystal ball and predict what technologies will most impact factory floors in the year ahead.

To set the stage for the predictions below, it’s worth noting that 2017 was a breakthrough year for digital factory solutions. Additive manufacturing, Industry 4.0, and digital transformation all gained momentum, cementing the need for factory Ethernet if manufacturers want to compete globally.

Before we dig in – I owe thanks to Matt Rendall, CEO of Clearpath Robotics, and Ben Hope, Festo Canada’s head of business development for manufacturing and Industry 4.0. Both have contributed to this piece and are quoted below where appropriate.

Prediction #1: IT/OT convergence will increase momentum

Ok, so this one is obvious, right?

Given the momentum built in 2017, IT/OT convergence will continue to be top-of-mind in 2018 as more manufacturers come around to the opportunities created by an industrial IT network. (Give this a read if you aren’t one of them.)

Added to this is the fact Canadian manufacturers are facing increased pricing pressure from global competitors, as well as significant personnel and operational costs. These pressures won’t go away in 2018, and by converging IT and OT systems manufacturers will be able to identify efficiency opportunities to save time and money.

Prediction #2: The rise of smart mechatronics

“2017 really saw progress on the data side of Industry 4.0. But what is the next step? If we’re taking data from our automation components, it’s likely we want to gain insights from that data, and it’s also likely we’ll want take actions based on those insights.” – Ben Hope, Festo Canada.

A thousand times, yes. Mechatronics is a vital piece of the Industry 4.0 puzzle, and Ben knows the topic better than anyone. Here is the rest of what he said we should watch for in 2018.

“We need mechatronic solutions that are agile, reconfigurable, and intelligent so that they can respond and adapt to changes in production requirements. Cyber-physical systems (CPS) are the means to achieve that kind of functionality. I think in 2018, industry will move from that conceptual definition of a CPS to looking at how these systems are designed, and how they can be implemented. Automation technology suppliers are starting to offer products that integrate complex function with intelligence and communication.

An example would be Festo’s Motion Terminal. This is the traditional valve terminal with the ability to reconfigure itself for different applications and diagnostics; to have access to data via OPC UA; and to have complex functionality available to the user without extensive design and programming. CPS enables better manufacturing, but they also enable faster design and development of automated equipment because now you’re specifying and buying function rather than a box of discrete components that need to be engineered, assembled, and integrated to achieve that same function.”

Like the convergence of IT and OT mentioned above, it’s clear that industry-leading manufacturers will begin to leverage smart mechatronics in 2018 to gain valuable insights and data from equipment.

Prediction #3: Big data and analytics finally arrives

Speaking of data, there are two pillars every manufacturer needs in 2018 if they are to realize the business value from digital solutions: a robust and secure IT network, and analytics. As IT networks become table stakes on the factory floor, watch for analytics to become a bigger part of a manufacturer’s technology stack in 2018.

Why? Because analytics help better predict machine maintenance and reduce waste. Data also suggests analytics is ripe for a boom with Canadian manufacturers. In IDC’s 2017 Forecast on Manufacturing Spend, 44% of our manufacturing IT leaders saw a high business value for analytics over the next 5 years.

Prediction #4: Intelligent Automation emerges

“It has never been more important for processes, machines, and humans in manufacturing to work harmoniously together. Intelligent automation – like Self-Driving Vehicles – brings together sensors, connectivity, and artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver flexible manufacturing processes that react in real-time to changes on the shop floor.  The factory of the future will be realized with intelligent automation.”- Matt Rendall, Clearpath Robotics.

Matt’s prediction is excellent, so I’ll add only a few words: Advances on the factory floor have created the ideal environment for intelligent automation to break through in 2018.

Prediction #5: Intelligent supply chains will force Canadian manufacturers to catch up

For years, Canadian manufacturers have trailed in the adoption of advanced technologies. This must end in 2018, and it won’t be easy.

The challenge is that 2018 is poised to be the year of the intelligent supply chain. Companies who have been investing in advanced technologies for several years now have the network and analytics foundation to implement a data-enabled, agile, and responsive supply chain.

As intelligent supply chain deployments worldwide increase in 2018, manufacturers in Canada will be forced to play ‘catch up’ by planning and implementing digital projects faster than competitors. It’s not the ideal situation, but if it finally gets Canadian manufacturers investing in digital solutions – I’m in.

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What do you think about my predictions? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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