Everybody has a list of transformative technologies. A news release from an advisory firm, ABI Research, came my way a few weeks ago. Its analysts came together and compiled a list of eight technologies they feel will be transformative in manufacturing and then they fit them with Smart Manufacturing. That latter phrase is one of the descriptors for the new wave of manufacturing strategy and technology.
We will have difficulty contesting the list. Most of these are, indeed, already well along the adoption path. I find it interesting that they refer to IIoT platforms, but they don’t view those as transforming technologies but rather as a sort of sandbox for the technologies to play in.
[This is a Gary aside—when an analyst firm makes a list of suppliers, I’d advise not considering it to be comprehensive. Rather the list is usually comprised of companies that the firm’s analysts get to sit down with and receive in-depth briefings.]
The ABI report identifies eight transformative technologies:
1 Additive manufacturing
2 Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML)
3 Augmented reality (AR)
5 Digital twins
6 Edge intelligence
7 Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) platforms
From the ABI news release, “The manufacturing sector has already seen increased adoption of IIoT platforms and edge intelligence. Over the next ten years, manufacturers will start to piece together the other new technologies that will eventually lead to more dynamic factories less dependent on fixed assembly lines and immobile assets. Each step in this transformation will make plants and their workers more productive.”
“Manufacturers want technologies they can implement now without disrupting their operations,” says Pierce Owen, Principal Analyst at ABI Research. “They will change the way their employees perform jobs with technology if it will make them more productive, but they have no desire to rip out their entire infrastructure to try something new. This means technologies that can leverage existing equipment and infrastructure, such as edge intelligence, have the most immediate opportunity.”
ABI summary of its research
The transition towards a lights-out factory has started, but such a major disruption will require an overhaul of workforces, IT architecture, physical facilities and equipment and full integration of dozens of new technologies including connectivity, additive manufacturing, drones, mobile collaborative robotics, IIoT platforms and AI.
IIoT platforms must support many of these other technologies to better integrate them with the enterprise and each other. Those that can connect and support equipment from multiple manufacturers, such as PTC Thingworx and Telit deviceWISE, will last.
After decades of producing little more than prototypes, the AM winter has ended and new growth has sprung up. GE placed significant bets on AM by acquiring Arcam and Concept laser in 2016, and Siemens announced an AM platform in April 2018. Other leading AM specialists include EOS, Stratasys, HP and 3D Systems.
ML capabilities and simulation software have made digital twins extremely useful for product development, production planning, product-aaS, asset monitoring and performance optimization. Companies with assets that they cannot easily inspect regularly will significantly benefit from exact, 3D digital twins, and companies that manufacture high-value assets should offer digital twin monitoring as-a-service for new revenue streams. Innovative vendors in digital twins and simulation software include PTC, SAP, Siemens, and ANSYS.
The above technologies have already started to converge, and robotics provide a physical representation of this convergence. Robotics use AI and computer vision and connect to IIoT platforms where they have digital twins. This connectivity and AI will increase in importance as more cobots join the assembly line and work alongside humans. The robotics vendors that can integrate the most deeply with other transformative technologies have the biggest opportunity. Such vendors include the likes of ABB, KUKA, FANUC, Universal Robots, Rethink Robotics and Yaskawa.
“The vendors that open up their technologies and integrate with both existing equipment and infrastructure and other new transformative technologies will carve out a share of this growing opportunity. Implementation will go step-by-step over multiple decades, but ultimately, how we produce goods will change drastically from what we see today,” concludes Owen.