2018 was a year of uncertainty for most manufacturing businesses. With an ever-changing political landscape affecting trade in the UK, Europe, and beyond, the term ‘adapt to survive’ has never been a more appropriate motto. As we approach a new year with similar turmoil on the horizon, intelligent manufacturers are looking to stay ahead of the curve through innovation in automated processes.

As well as hot topics such as AI and machine learning, companies are increasingly looking at the intelligent use of data to optimise processes at all levels of the business. The rise of on-demand services means manufacturers will have to manage their supply chains in minute detail to continue to meet customer expectations. With all these competing ideas, a little insight can go a long way toward keeping you ahead of the pack. That said, let’s take a look at some of the trends that will drive intelligent manufacturing in 2019.

The rise of the machines

The landscape of manufacturing has changed. The idea of a factory floor with an unskilled, labour-driven workforce is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. Tech-savvy workers functioning in tandem with increasingly efficient and intelligent machines is the new norm. As 2019 advances, we will see increasing use of digital twins, combined with AR & VR. These not only allow manufacturers to simulate and test products and processes in a virtual environment at minimal per unit costs, but can also allow for whole new ways of visualising data. These same technologies also open up new ways for workers to interact with machines and can allow for remote human control of hazardous tasks – another way of increasing safety in the manufacturing environment.

Intelligent business, intelligent staff

The increasing need for workers who are comfortable with technology means many businesses will need to update their recruitment procedures. We will see manufacturers increasingly approaching young graduates and selling the idea of a career in a newer, more intelligent manufacturing environment. In 2018, companies not directly involved in software development increasingly recruited prospects with development ability, as software integration has become a high priority to all manner of businesses. This trend is only expected to increase in 2019. The influx of new talent will mean that retaining and up-skilling those staff with the most experience and knowledge of your specific business area is more important than ever. New technology will also play a part here, as businesses are able to train staff in no-risk, virtual environments, allowing for product experience and technological ability to be developed with a much lower impact on operations efficiency.

IT and operations become inseparable

A recent report from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella on digital trends for 2019 emphasised the increasing integration of IT services and operations. Nadella sees this as ‘freeing’ the data that a business is collecting and allowing it to work for them. Collecting and processing data, real-time problem solving, remote monitoring and automated processes will be IT-lead initiatives in 2019. The Microsoft CEO described this ‘Tech intensity’ as “A fusion of cultural mindset and business processes that rewards the development and propagation of digital capabilities that create end-to-end digital feedback loops, tear down data silos and unleash information flows to trigger insights and predictions, automated workflows and intelligent services.” The latest research suggests that 93% of British manufacturers are using real-time data and automation technology in some capacity, mostly for product optimisation and quality assurance. The same principles can be applied to operations efficiency across all levels of the business.

The customer is (still) king

2019’s new business model buzzword is ‘servitization.’ Manufacturers have increasingly found that offering customer service solutions as well as their physical output increases engagement and improves the end user experience. In turn, this improves lasting client relationships and increases customer loyalty. The rise of on-demand services in manufacturing means that businesses need to be more directly engaged with their customer base than ever before. Integrating these aspects into existing business models will be vital in 2019. Adding in service-oriented procedures to an existing product-oriented environment can be a huge challenge, but successful manufacturers already have skills in optimising internal processes. The main principle to grasp is that these data collecting and process optimising skills don’t need to stop once the product leaves your premises. Analysing data such as how your product is being utilised can help your company monitor and react to market trends.

Conclusion: looking forward

Adapting to these new technologies, processes, business models, and a changing workforce will be high priorities for manufacturers looking to succeed in 2019. Identifying problem areas through new possibilities in data analysis and investing in innovative solutions will be the factors that separate the market leaders from the pack. However, decision-makers must also avoid the pitfalls of pursuing innovation for innovation’s sake and ensure that workforce education keeps pace with technological advancement.