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How to Prepare for the Next Wave of High-Tech Manufacturing

By Chris Richard, Partner, A.T. Kearney & Clarence Chen, Partner, High Tech, A.T. Kearney

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Chris Richard, Partner, A.T. Kearney & Clarence Chen, Partner, High Tech, A.T. Kearney

Suggested stand first: What CIOs will need to have front of mind as the manufacturing floor changes.

Once upon a time, there were two types of manufacturers: high-tech and everybody else. Today, when almost any product can be technology-enabled, the challenge for many manufacturers is to make all sorts of items high-tech—and to make them all with high-tech processes.

This manufacturing transformation is driven by four key factors. The first is shifting consumer expectations. Although consumers may seem demanding today, their appetite for personalization, connectivity, and freshness will continue to grow, and will do so rapidly. Today we see fledgling personalization, with customized sneakers and cell phone cases. By 2020 such products will likely be mainstream, and by 2030 consumers may demand that manufacturers have sufficient flexibility to personalize almost anything.

Consumers will also increasingly insist on the benefits of connectivity, such as location-sensing-based services and auto-replenishment. Furthermore, they will expect releases of new products monthly rather than annually. They will want delivery in hours rather than days. Today, it is retailers that bear the brunt of consumer pressure; soon the pressure on manufacturers will be equally intense.

The second factor is additive manufacturing, or 3D printing. In 2010 there were just 23,000 industrial-sized 3D printers in the world; by 2030 they could number 100 million. Their costs should drop by about half each decade; meanwhile their capabilities will grow, including the number and types of materials they can process and the quality of the finish of their final products.

Such expansion in additive manufacturing will offer the capability to meet consumers’ personalization needs. Manufacturers will need not only 3D printers, of course, but also the processes and information ecosystem to support them.  

“On the manufacturing line, an embedded sensor can indicate the product’s internal stress or other characteristics, triggering additional intelligent machining”

The third factor is automation, specifically robotics. Even in 2010, it was often more efficient to buy a robot to do a repetitive task than to pay a year’s salary for a person in a G-20 nation. By 2020, it will likely be more cost-effective to buy a robot than to hire a worker in many low-cost countries, and by 2030 their use for repetitive tasks could be taken for granted.

Meanwhile, robots will be able to take on more complex and flexible tasks, with increasing human interaction. No longer anchored to a single position, by 2020 robots will increasingly roam the floor and collaborate with people. By 2030 we can expect to see examples of “lights-out” factories, with operators controlling production from outside the factory floor.

The fourth factor, the Internet of Things, will similarly decrease in cost while increasing in ubiquity. Traditional factories have had sensors on production tools to monitor localized environments. By 2020, sensors will become increasingly connected, coordinated, and automated. By 2030, it is likely that they will be integrated into nearly all of the manufactured items.

On the manufacturing line, an embedded sensor can indicate the product’s internal stress or other characteristics, triggering additional intelligent machining. But when a sensor remains in a product throughout its useful lifetime, it can continue to send information that the manufacturer can use to improve future designs.

For manufacturers, the results of these developments will be two radical shifts in how they think and operate:

1. Design. Current constraints on what can be done will vanish. Almost anything can be done—which makes design choices essential to success. Furthermore, design will need to incorporate far more data: both real-time data on plant conditions and usage data from customers. Indeed, the best design processes will involve more players, both customers and suppliers.

These new design schemes will require sophisticated information infrastructure, including the tools to facilitate collaboration and the tools to interpret and incorporate large amounts of data from multiple sources.

2. Make. Current trade-offs often boil down to volume versus personalization, but tomorrow’s more automated and additive manufacturing will eliminate much of this trade-off. In addition, with the proliferation of robots, the human workforce will transform into more-educated “mission control operators.” With these developments, a plant’s footprint can be infinite, both inside and outside the walls of a traditional facility.

As a result, the good news is that the CIO should be invited to take a deserved seat at the table in designing and implementing strategies for future success. The bad news is the accompanying pressure: success in manufacturing will depend on an agile and adaptive IT infrastructure that does not exist today and that indeed may be hard for some even to envision today. CIOs must envision it, sell it to leadership, and build it in a way that can be adapted to support new driving factors.

The first priority for CIOs, therefore, will be to increase the strategic and collaborative nature of their thinking. How will you achieve mass customization? Which data sources will be most useful for flexibility? How will you work with suppliers to connect production, design, and IT resources? The answers to these questions will vary by manufacturer, but the time to start thinking about them is now.

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