By: Nathan Sykes
The manufacturing industry is in an interesting spot right now. One one hand, a number of surveys indicate strong optimism in the sector, with a majority of firms anticipating domestic growth, and a plurality actively planning new product launches.
However, in 2019, about 500,000 manufacturing jobs stand vacant while analysts estimate we’ll face a 2.4 million job shortage within the coming decade.
Suffice it to say, small and medium businesses in the manufacturing industry (SMBs) need to do more with less — and that means making smart investments in even smarter technologies. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the technology that’s making the biggest impact in the world of SMB manufacturers.
IIoT Reduces the Burden of Maintenance and Prolongs Machine Life
The Industrial Internet of Things might sound like an inaccessible concept for SMBs — until you realize it’s merely a connected web of computers and machinery. It’s simple enough in theory, but it’s a game-changer for small and medium-sized manufacturers. Here’s what it can do for your SMB:
- Machine-to-machine communication makes it easy for multiple departments to synchronize their activities and be more responsive to changing conditions on the factory floor. Manufacturing equipment at one end of your facility could, for example, receive a signal from a connected conveyor belt at the other end, and ratchet production up or down depending on product throughput at any given time.
- It’s becoming more common for new manufacturing equipment to arrive with internet connectivity and sensors built in. Some small manufacturers choose to retrofit existing infrastructure when they don’t want to spend the money on a full upgrade. These sensors detect aberrations in temperature and vibration and alert maintenance staff that failure may be imminent. Other times, they monitor how much energy the equipment is spending on an ordinary task. This can indicate that a cutting tool or drill bit may need changing, or signal another downturn in productivity before it becomes a bigger problem.
The goal with internet-connected infrastructure like this is to enable human operators to make more proactive decisions and better coordinate with multiple teams or facilities. Investing in the IIoT also makes it a breeze to automate things like lighting and temperature control in a factory setting to achieve cost savings, which is a vital concern for smaller enterprises.
Additive Manufacturing Reduces Waste and Aids in Faster Prototyping
There’s every reason to believe additive manufacturing and 3D printers will one day scale to the point where they displace incumbent manufacturing techniques like injection molding. For now, they’re a vital ally for SMB manufacturers and larger companies that wish to produce small runs of specific products, customized orders or region-specific goods in a cost-effective way.
Additive manufacturing is more cost-effective than injection-molding because it doesn’t require the removal of material via cutting or drilling — it adds elements instead, layer by layer. In traditional manufacturing, a company may find itself wasting as much as 21 percent of its raw materials. With 3D printing, that number can drop to 10 percent or even lower. Coupled with other industrial methods for reclaiming cast-off materials — like tin and aluminum, which were previously written off as unavoidable waste by manufacturers — 3D printing looks to be a lot more eco-friendly than previous methods.
Small manufacturing companies find themselves up against other cost constraints — including the priciness of building and testing functional prototypes. 3D printing aids in rapid prototyping and helps create products with performance and design tolerances that are closer to the finished product than what was possible with traditional methods.
The ultimate impact of additive manufacturing on small and large manufacturing businesses is still developing — but the bottom line already looks extremely promising.
Blockchain Eases Traceability and Other Supply Chain Constraints
In 2017, the consumer goods industries and manufacturing companies were among the most enthusiastic adopters of blockchain-based technologies.
At its most basic, blockchain represents a way for all kinds of operational data to be stored in a decentralized and tamper-resistant ledger. When shared among manufacturing partners — including suppliers, purchasing agents, manufacturing companies, and freight and distribution companies — this ledger has the potential to greatly lower the barrier of entry for smaller entities.
Think of it as a kind of peer-to-peer solution for recording information that’s of interest to all parties. Every purchase and instance of a shipment changing hands can be entered into this ledger, thereby creating a record of finished products and payments. This drastically reduces the risks for everybody involved, and it may render some third-party security and remittance service companies obsolete — leading to additional cost savings.
For smaller manufacturing companies whose reputations might be permanently damaged by a batch of defective products or contaminated foodstuffs that wasn’t caught in time, blockchain also makes it far more straightforward to conduct recalls and trace manufacturing defects back to their source. Every detail of the manufacturing and distribution processes is recorded, and all of it is virtually impossible to falsify.
There are significant cost savings for SMB manufacturers that use blockchain in their operations. The World Economic Forum indicates that ironing out current inefficiencies in the supply chain could improve the global GDP by 5 percent, or $2.6 trillion. Blockchain helps eliminate inefficiencies by reducing the cost and effort required to vet partners and suppliers, trace materials to their source, secure financial services, exchange goods and monies across borders, and engage in quality control for manufactured goods.
Cobots Help Close the Talent Gap
As we alluded to earlier, SMB manufacturers are especially disadvantaged when it comes to finding the talent they need to meet demands and maintain their competitiveness. With that in mind, cobots are one of the most exciting technologies for leveling the productivity playing field. A New York-based small manufacturing company called Voodoo shows how domestic SMBs can realistically compete with cheap overseas manufacturers.
Employees at Voodoo work alongside cobots that are vastly more efficient and accurate in performing certain manufacturing tasks than their human counterparts. For instance, they can load and unload plates and workpieces from 3D printers incredibly efficiently — leading to cost savings of up to 90 percent in the manufacturing process for some products.
At Kay Manufacturing in Illinois, camera-equipped cobots perform visual inspections of finished automotive parts much faster and more accurately than humans can — and yet the company has never laid off a human worker as a result of automation.
Each of these technologies is a work in progress, but each one stands to level the manufacturing playing field for SMBs in a way that was unthinkable only a few years ago.
About the author
Nathan Sykes is the founder of Finding an Outlet, where he covers business and technology.