Supply chain disruptions have been a recurring theme in logistics over the past few years, with companies feeling the effects of everything from geopolitical instability to severe weather events to global pandemics. As supply chains have become increasingly international and more complex, they are more vulnerable to common challenges, including materials shortages, labor supply, customer demands for faster response times, forecasting, and downward pressure on customer pricing. In response to these challenges, companies are looking to make their supply chains resilient by diversifying their supplier base, increasing inventory levels, developing contingency plans, and adopting smart manufacturing.
While many manufacturing practices can be “smart,” the term encapsulates a broader ideological perspective. Smart manufacturing is a technology-driven approach that supports lean operation principles, including supplier diversification, inventory management, and equipment innovation.
The popularity of smart manufacturing speaks to the larger movement toward Industry 4.0 and implementing automation technologies across industries. Introduced in 2011 and coined the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” Industry 4.0 involves four main components:
IoT is widely recognized as a defining component of Industry 4.0 due to its ability to connect machinery and objects while maintaining human oversight on problem solving.
The adoption of Industry 4.0 principles has influenced the development of new technologies that optimize manufacturing processes and supply chains. One of the most significant developments is the introduction of cloud-based systems that provide real-time visibility into inventory levels and supplier networks. This real-time data feeds seamlessly into the IoT, providing manufacturers with a live view of their operations and the ability to make real-time changes.
Over the past decade, cloud-based software advancement and equipment innovation have made huge strides. Mobile robots and fixed automation are two of the most promising technologies in intralogistics—managing material flow within a facility—and manufacturing. Both offer increased productivity, reduced labor costs, and the ability to operate around the clock. Mobile, autonomous robots have the potential to be easily scaled and managed with software, making them a logical option for modernizing businesses of all sizes.
Autonomous mobile robots (AMR) and automated guided vehicles (AGV) are two of the most prominent players in the navigation space. With the rising trend of online consumer shopping, these machines have been a welcome and necessary investment to meet purchasing demands.
Installations of fixed automation systems are also on the rise, particularly in the application of autonomous navigation. The transition to manufacturing and warehousing machinery electrification, enabled by the rapid evolution of battery chemistry and smart battery charging systems, has advanced in recent years. Charging solutions that are customizable down to the equipment specifications and usage levels are available to manufacturers to optimize their AMR and AGV investments.
More advanced automation solutions exist, too. These include telematics data integration, which provides vital statistics to a manufacturing landscape. Predictive analytics is also being incorporated to help identify potential problems for organizations.
Wearable technology continues to advance and enter the mainstream, with products like wearable barcode scanners potentially replacing their more cumbersome handheld predecessors. The potential applications for these technologies are numerous. From a smart manufacturing perspective, these innovations streamline the way products are manufactured and moved, from material handling to long-haul trucking to last-mile delivery.
Naturally, technology requires an investment of resources. While an engineering team might jump at the chance to incorporate these innovations, the financial decision-makers may be more hesitant. When embracing innovative technology, one of the most significant barriers for companies is the lack of a compelling business case to justify an investment. There should be a clear return on investment before the output of resources is readily allocated. The push for innovation and the pushback from financial gatekeepers can lead to a frustrating stalemate for a company.
The desire for data to support new investments isn’t unreasonable. However, the newer the technology, the less data available. While investment caution is necessary, manufacturers don’t want to miss opportunities that could optimize operational efficiency. Once investments are approved, recruiting a skilled workforce will help a company navigate new technology and get the most operational ROI. Additionally, partnering with suppliers with dedicated R&D departments and proven innovation track records will go a long way in stabilizing an often-mercurial supply chain.
Internal business challenges aside, many external factors also compound supply chains. As the global manufacturing footprint expands, the list of government regulations increases as factories and distribution networks operate across more borders. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to expose vulnerabilities in global logistics.
While different industries face unique implementation challenges, the overwhelming lesson across all sectors is: Smart manufacturing strategies have proved highly effective for managing unpredictable circumstances. Diverse supplier profiles, component alternatives and advanced inventory management all contributed to the success of manufacturers who weathered the pandemic relatively unscathed. In a world that shut down, the companies that prioritized technology-forward principles were better equipped to handle a supply chain that needed to function at a high level without needing constant physical intervention or maintenance.
The recipe for success in today’s business world is constantly changing. Still, there are key strategies that any organization should follow to stay ahead of the curve. Supply chain flexibility has become increasingly important in recent years, as businesses have had to adapt to volatile market conditions. Costs must be carefully monitored and controlled to remain competitive. Recruiting and retaining skilled labor is essential for maintaining a high level of quality. Organizations must embrace technology to streamline operations and improve efficiency. By following these simple guidelines, businesses can position themselves for success.
Implementing smart manufacturing technologies will help industries across the globe stay resilient in the face of supply chain instability. By introducing automated processes, organizations can improve and streamline operations, increase operational visibility, and make real-time changes based on data.
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