The manufacturing industry as a whole is undergoing unprecedented transformation Image Credit: Supplied

Anyone who’s been in the vicinity of Dubai World Central this week will have no doubt heard — and felt — the familiar rumbles that often characterise these parts at this time of the year. Yes, the Dubai Airshow is once again in town, with obligatory fly-pasts from various fighter jets, passenger planes, and helicopters keeping visitors entertained.

Punctuated by the astonishing aerial acrobatics of the Al Fursan and Patrouille de France display teams, it’s these regular afternoon fly-pasts that inevitably catch the eye. But beyond the brightly coloured vapour trails, the Dubai Airshow is a meeting place for some of the most advanced manufacturers on Earth.

While it’s unavoidably true that most manufacturers aren’t busy working on the next evolution of long-haul flight, it’s clear that this most innovative of industries can serve as an inspiration for manufacturers of other somewhat less glamorous goods, from children’s clothing and toys to industrial machinery and parts.

The inescapable fact is that the manufacturing industry as a whole is undergoing unprecedented transformation, fuelled by the disruptive ability of digital technologies to drive improvements in logistics, asset tracking, pre-emptive maintenance, production processes, service response times, safety, and environmental sustainability, to name just a few.

Renewed halo

No more than 10 years ago, many companies viewed their factories as deadweight assets to be arbitraged, while they sought to shift new production to low-cost regions. However, factors such as falling energy costs, the need to be closer to customers, and rising government interest in subsidising a strong manufacturing base have changed the perception of manufacturing in recent years.

Competition has never been higher in manufacturing, and more companies competing for the same customer base makes differentiation a challenge. All this means that, today, survival of the fittest is linked not to size or strength but to the organisation’s agility and its ability to change — to move quickly, adapt, and seize opportunities.

Customer needs are evolving faster than ever before, and customisation of products is key. This is resulting in factories being relied upon to handle more complex operations — serving a wider range of products, with faster throughput, smaller lots, all at minimised costs. Balancing cost, quality, throughput, and agility is a complex equation that many manufacturers struggle with.

Getting the smarts

What has emerged to take this new distributed manufacturing to its highest potential is a construct that IDC collectively refers to as “Smart Manufacturing”. At its core, smart manufacturing is the convergence of data acquisition, analytics, and automated control to improve flexibility and overall effectiveness of a company’s factory network.

Drawing on technologies like big data analytics, robotics, 3D printing, augmented reality and internet of Things, smart manufacturing — or Industry 4.0 as it’s otherwise known — is transforming production, driving greater efficiencies than ever previously imagined. It is also transforming the traditional relationships between suppliers, manufacturers, and customers — as well as between humans and machines.

As befitting an industry that makes so much noise, Airbus has long been a pioneer in this regard, leveraging an IoT platform to connect its employees with the robotic tools that assist them in the production process. This “cyber-physical” approach has helped streamline tens of thousands of steps along the aircraft assembly-line and resulted in considerable improvements not just in productivity and efficiency, but in reliability as well.

Everyone’s on board

Where the aviation industry has led, others are now following, and we are beginning to see manufacturers of all shapes and sizes reap similar benefits. Right across the entire industry spectrum, smart manufacturing is being introduced to streamline and automate processes, improve asset tracking, and proactively maintain equipment to boost efficiency and improve workplace safety.

The examples are far too numerous to list, but we’ve seen businesses utilise analytics platforms to eliminate the waste their factories send to landfills; we’ve seen businesses leverage cloud to enable the online monitoring of globally distributed machine tools, robots, and equipment; and we’ve seen businesses combine IoT and cloud-based technologies to drastically reduce downtime.

Ultimately, it’s the connectivity of machines and their ability to generate and analyse complex actionable data in real time that truly sets these businesses apart. It’s fair to say that most people thought the golden age of manufacturing was behind us.

But with smart machines only ever getting smarter, faster, and more efficient as they gain access to more and more data, maybe that golden age actually lies ahead.

Jyoti Lalchandani is regional Managing Director at IDC.