Back to the Future of Manufacturing



If the pandemic taught us anything, it was that change happens quickly. Technology that would have previously taken years to develop was rolled out in a matter of months. The OEDC claims that Science, technology, and innovation is seeing structural changes as governments see resilience and environmental sustainability as ever more critical for their policy agendas. The past two years has also influenced the way businesses work and how products are brought to market.


So, what might the future of manufacturing look like? The predictions below should not be understood as existing independently from each other—rather they are an interconnected and overlapping account of how the world is evolving.


Fixing and Rethinking the Supply Chain


Covid-19 broke the supply chain. Bottlenecks including the shipping container crisis are leading to delays in production and the delivery of goods. Questions are being asked about the merits of globalisation vs the risks. Companies are revisiting their pre-pandemic focus on prioritising short-term gains in efficiency, which, as we have seen, has unearthed long-term inefficiencies.


In the future, manufacturers will probably open localised manufacturing or microsites that are close to their end market. The overarching idea is that setting up local factories and using AI and automation will speed up the supply chain, reduce costs and barriers, and increase time to market.


The Internet of Things (IoT) and Digitalisation


The IoT comprises physical objects that are connected to the internet and powered by software. Manufacturers will likely see the IoT as becoming increasingly important to support their supply chain operations—particularly when it comes to logistics as adopting the technology offers more oversight in operations and transportation.

The IoT will likely be instrumental in creating smart warehouses and fleets. It will be used to improve warehouse management, fleet tracking, inventory control, and technological and mechanical maintenance, which will lead to increased supply chain efficiency.


IoT devices will be an essential part of manufacturing, and they will be used together with existing technologies to improve processes. Data from warehouse sensors, for example, could be used to automate processes such as forecasting. The key will be integrating devices connected to the internet as the supply chain becomes more digitalised.


Moreover, digitisation will undoubtedly be the future as the process will streamline the whole supply chain as well as make it more dynamic.


Circular Supply Chains


Raw materials used to be turned into goods, which were used and then disposed of. But time’s up on this model. All future supply chains, not just the fringe few, will be circular. Consumers are now demanding that the products they buy are ethical. And reusing discarded products, recycling them, and re-introducing them into the manufacturing process will become as commonplace as having a website.


This will revolutionise business models as Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) look to use different, more environmentally friendly materials in their manufacturing processes. Companies such as The House of Marley manufacture electronics with materials including bamboo, recycled aluminium, REGRIND™ Silicone, recycled paper, and wood composite. This will change the way manufacturers source products and may also lead to a new concept of ownership, which will also affect the supply chain.


We already have subscriptions for software, such as Spotify, which ended music ownership. However, it is likely that we will soon subscribe to more physical products. This trend has already started, with companies such as Volvo providing customers with cars for a monthly fee. Customers do not own the product and can stop the subscription at any time. While this is mostly available for high-end products, it is likely that all domestic appliances and electronics will move towards this model. For example, we will rent our fridges rather than own them, and when we want to change provider, we can simply return them. For manufacturers, this will mean that the supply chain will involve the products they have already made rather than constantly sourcing raw materials to create new products. Therefore, more attention will be paid to sustainable manufacturing and the durability of products.


The Right to Repair—Ethical and Environmental Responsibility


Ever since mass production was popularized in the early twentieth century, manufacturing has been centred around the concept of planned obsolescence—goods having an approximate predetermined lifecycle with no real method of repair. The strategy has been used so consumers have to purchase a new product rather than choosing to fix their old one and extend its lifecycle.


We are buying ever more products, and e-waste sored by 21% in the 5 years leading up to 2019 - but consumers are becoming ever more preoccupied with the environmental damage this is causing, and they are paying more attention to how the products they purchase are made. This has given rise to the ‘right to repair’: in June 2021, UK legislation changed to include the right to repair for certain electrical items, including dishwashers, washing machines and washer-dryers, refrigeration appliances, televisions, and electronic displays.


Surprisingly, mobile phones and laptops were not included in the government’s list. Apple briefly opposed the bill; however, the company has always been renowned for its innovation and decided to own the change rather than fight it. In November 2021, the former champion of protectionism and throwaway devices announced not quite the ‘right to repair’ but its new ‘ self-service repair’ option. History has shown us that what Apple does, other companies tend to follow.


Being ahead of the legislation is likely to give Apple even more market power, and other companies will also want to be seen as environmental champions. Therefore, manufacturers are likely to focus on making products with longevity in mind as well as customers’ ability to quickly and easily fix a product. Companies will also redesign their business models to include an environmental and social element at their core. We are likely to see the surging success of businesses such as Fairphone, which uses recycled electronic waste, gives a minimum lifecycle guarantee, and shows customers how to easily fix each part of their phone.


Man Working Hand in Hand with Machine—The Rise of the Cobot


There is still a general global tendency that automation is a luxury rather than a necessity. Many think that using robots in manufacturing is too complex and is reserved for the largest players in the market—the Tier 1 giants. Additionally, there is the worry that robots will steal jobs and make humans obsolete.


However, neither are true. Collaborative robots or ‘cobots’ are generally used to collaborate with humans to carry out repetitive tasks such as drilling, screwdriving, testing etc. This frees up humans to focus on tasks that require greater cognitive and manual dexterity. Cobots are different from robots in that they can work closely and safely with humans thanks to advanced algorithms.


Despite cobots having been used for just over a decade, there is still a relatively low understanding of how to maximise the use of cobots in manufacturing processes. The future will see manufacturers using cobots in a more targeted way, and they will become an integral part of factory operations. There will also be more of an understanding of how humans can maximise their interactions with cobots as well as an acceptance of human-robot relations.


Opposite to the knee-jerk that robots are ‘taking our jobs’, widescale adoption of cobots will lead to new people being hired who specialise in robotics. Existing workers will also become far more skilled so they can leverage new technologies and tools. Manufacturers will more frequently work with robot consultants to assess their processes and ensure ROI.


The use of cobots, unlike costly industrial robots, may also have an effect on the tier system in manufacturing. Currently, the top ‘Tier 1’ manufacturers can take advantage of economies of scale and have the ability to acquire the latest technology. If this continues, they will always remain unchallenged and smaller manufacturers will not be able to compete. However, cobots and other affordable automation technologies have the potential to level the playing field by allowing smaller manufacturers to compete with the behemoths.


Blockchain Technologies


The first thing that comes to mind when most people think of blockchain technology is Bitcoin. But blockchain is not just used for cryptocurrencies; it is a decentralised digital record of every transaction that has taken place within a particular network. By using this technology, every participant in the network can confirm their transaction without the requirement for third-party confirmation.


Manufacturers are also developing innovative solutions using the technology that rethinks how firms interact. Blockchain technology could revolutionise how products are designed, engineered, produced, and scaled. Adopting the technology makes transactions and interactions safer and can lead to streamlined operations, transformed pricing models, and safer reputations. Blockchain can also:

  • Increase transparency throughout supply chains

  • Track the identity and credentials of key personnel

  • Permit more seamless audit and compliance functionality

Blockchain has the capability to provide solutions to manufacturing problems, including:

  • Monitoring supply chains to ensure enhanced greater transparency for complex supply chains for which delays and sourcing issues negatively impact production and profitability.

  • Engineering design for long-duration, high-complexity products. Delays in sharing updated engineering specifications can increase rework times, which affects final delivery.

  • Identity management, which will help provide information on who is taking an action and their credentials.

  • Quality assurance, which can look across production life-cycle to assess quality and patterns of defects, for example.

Manufacturers will continue to seek solutions that use blockchain-powered technology, which will make processes more efficient and safe. This will be a source of significant value and will lead to a broader technological revolution—part of Industry 5.0—that will help to promote advanced alternative technologies, including augmented reality, IoT, and 3D printing.


Personalisation of Products


Instead of buying what is on offer, customers will demand to buy a product the way they want it. This trend started in the shoe industry, with manufacturers offering shoes that were custom made and designed based on the customer scanning their own foot. However, it is now used in the consumer electronics, automotive, and healthcare industries.


Although currently in its infancy, the manufacturers of tomorrow will use a combination of 3-D printing, networked production, and high-speed data transmission to permit mass customisation. Customisation is now offered by a few manufacturers; however, it will be offered as standard within the next few years as manufacturers use more IoT technologies and cobots, which will reduce costs. The manufacturers that transition towards becoming smart factories will be best placed to offer standardised products.

This will have several beneficial implications on manufacturers. First, it will ensure that all products manufactured have a buyer, which will reduce financial risk and wastage. Second, producing customised products will change marketing as the individual is designing what they want rather than actively being sold a product. Lastly, customers become creators and designers instead of a passive recipient of a product. This will make the product inherently more valuable and is more likely to ensure brand loyalty.


Conclusion


The past two years have presented nothing but challenges for electronics manufacturers. However, the future presents nothing but opportunities. Customers are demanding change: they want more personalised products from companies that are environmentally friendly. And manufacturers have ever-more opportunities to do this by embracing technology. This will have a levelling up effect and allow smaller manufacturers to compete with the ‘Tier 1s’. Ultimately, people will get better products that will be made more efficiently.