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Flex Says These Will be the Top 5 Trends Shaping Manufacturing’s Future


If your manufacturing isn’t optimized for today’s digital ways, it might as well be in the Dark Ages.

Whether it’s Industry 4.0, Sourcing 4.0, the factory of the future—it’s clear that companies are shifting their means of production to cater to current demand.

Flex, now known in the apparel and footwear space for its role in helping fuel Nike’s Manufacturing Revolution initiative, is calling this evolution/revolution manufacturing’s fourth wave.

The new fourth wave, according to the global design, engineering and manufacturing innovations leader, will be powered by smart manufacturing, robotics, the Internet of Things and smart automation that goes a step further.

“Not since the advent of the computer have we seen such an overhaul in how mass production is managed,” Flex wrote in a recent issue of its Intelligence Magazine. Industry 4.0 will bring with it what’s being called the “smart factory,” which will see cyber systems monitor factory processes and make decentralized decisions. It will also see concepts and products reviewed virtually to maximize efficiency and minimize risk—which will ultimately also lead to cost savings.

That’s going to mean a major shift for supply chains as companies invest in making manufacturing more intelligent.

“While the current supply chain system consists of several steps—marketing, product development, manufacturing, and distribution—that occur independent of one another, smart manufacturing could streamline the time, effort, and communication between each step, creating faster and more reliable service,” Flex said.

And Flex will be helping fuel this foray into manufacturing’s fourth wave. Though the company maintains traditional customers like HP and Nokia that still outline the details of what they want, others are coming to the company looking for Flex to take the lead.

“…Now we have a new set of customers coming to us with a sketch of a product idea. They’re asking Flex to design it,” Flex said. “For us, this is driving a need for new ways of working, new processes in the manufacturing space.”

For companies to find success in this new world of manufacturing, Flex said there are five trends they’ll need to ready themselves for.

1. Seeing around corners—in 360°

Gone are—or at least should be—the days of sending samples and strike-offs back and forth across seas for months to settle on the right one, and tying up time to market in the process. Now, companies need to be focused on testing products and concepts virtually before taking them to market.

“Simulating the product-creation phase helps cut down on manufacturing time, and that means companies are able to get a more realistic version of what they want,” Flex said.

Flex has taken to using things like augmented reality wearable glasses for remote technical assistance, allowing users in different parts of the world to connect via live view, meaning an engineer in the U.S. could connect with one in China on technical issues and get real time feedback. According to Flex, when Boeing similarly used Google Glass for a pilot project in 2016, it reduced assembly line wire production time by 25 percent and reduced error rates by half.

2. Viewing the Fourth Wave—in 3-D

Printing in 3-D will continue to make its mark in the manufacturing sector, both saving production time and reducing waste by using recycled materials for printing.

“Its implications for mass production are varied, making advancements possible in products ranging from toys to medical devices. In addition to these consolidation and scrap benefits, additive manufacturing also offers many other benefits, including precision material placement, significant time and cost savings, and the ability to decentralize the manufacturing of basic parts by providing services closer to end markets,” Flex said. “These benefits allow for a vertically integrated supply chain in Flex’s operations.”

3. Advanced manufacturing—on autopilot

Automation, for those that haven’t realized, is now a must-have, not a nice-to-have. For most companies, the use of automation will need to be kicked up a notch.

“For Flex, automation means creating products with the kind of accuracy and stamina that humans can’t provide—and doing so in environments that would be considered unsafe for humans,” the company noted.

This new iteration of robots will be able to collaborate with humans rather than solely replacing their roles. They’ll be able to provide feedback on worker safety and performance issues using sensors, and will be able to do things like shut down operation until conditions are safe.

“New robots that are more agile, skilled, cheaper, and safer could decrease labor costs, bringing manufacturing processes back to the United States and other high-wage countries from Mexico and China,” Flex said citing The Wall Street Journal.

4. Building intelligent factories—in the cloud

To achieve these more intelligent future factories, companies will increasingly turn to smart sensors, installing them in both older equipment and newer machines to do things like convert data, communicate with other machines and record statistics and feedback.

“IoT functionality can track and analyze production quotas, consolidate control rooms, and create models of predictive maintenance,” Flex said. “Machines could increasingly be able to self-report problems, provide insight on ways to improve efficiency, and generate feedback on product functionality and consumer usage.”

A report published late in 2016 found that companies using industrial analytics stand to increase their revenue, improve customer satisfaction and product quality, while also optimizing their supply chains. But more than just diving into collecting data, companies will actually need to know what to do with it—and do it.

“Deep data could uncover consumer insights that create an increase in regional manufacturing. It can also connect multiple factories by region, share movable assets, and reduce time and waste. Real-time flexibility promises to conserve energy, while smart power grids create production schedules that observe peak- and low-demand periods,” Flex said. “Data from augmented and virtual reality, as well as increased customer feedback, will have a significant impact on research and development, giving consumers more of what they want, getting it to them faster, and cutting down on costs—a system that ultimately will drive innovation.”

5. Robots on the rise—managed by humans

When it comes to robots, the industry rightfully has concerns about what will happen to the humans. But the experts say most robots won’t outright replace people, rather, they will learn to work side by side to make processes more efficient.

“The jobs that are going to be taken over by automation are actually going to be replaced with additional product volume and categories,” said François Barbier, president of Global Operations and Components at Flex. “We will need people who are able to manage these new operations, manage the robotics, to program them and maintain them. People who used to produce things with their hands, they’ll start to produce things with their brains. You’ll have to take care of the information that you’re going to get out of this automated equipment and interpret what you can do with that information. I believe there are lot of different categories of experts and skilled people we’ll need for designing, building, and using the automation.”

Algorithm specialists and software architects will be two key roles in Industry 4.0, both of which Flex says will be necessary for stabilizing supply chains and synchronizing operations.

“With increased efficiency, more jobs, and growing profits, the future of American manufacturing is looking bright,” Flex said. The shift to smart manufacturing is expected to save companies money, which should mean profits, which should then lead to more jobs. “Under any administration, this philosophy should hold true. As our machines move into a more complex age, so do our workers and products, symbiotically growing into a new era of production.”