Digital future - Manufacturing Technology Report


IT Reseller spoke with leading analysts and vendors about current developments within the manufacturing technology space and what future innovations might emerge over the next few years. 

The world of manufacturing technology is changing, and digital is certainly the watchword. As Rowan Litter, research analyst, enterprise mobility, VDC Research, points out, the primary development within the manufacturing technology space is Digital Transformation. This, he explains, can be as simple as upgrading from outdated/legacy systems or pen-and-paper or enabling an entire smart factory with automation, and machine learning/AI capabilities. “As these technologies become tested and proven, manufacturers are realising that correctly incorporating these innovations will lead to increased operational efficiency and greater production to meet rises in consumer demand,” he says. 

Litter believes a very important piece that needs to be talked about is the enabler of these innovations and technology. “That enabler comes from connectivity and networks; what will allow businesses to adopt and connect more technologies, process data faster and provide the best security from a rise in cybersecurity threats, as well as the overall risks with digitalisation,” he says. “Private Wireless Networks have emerged as the enabler for manufacturers who are interested in implementing these new technologies. A challenge for many organisations comes from not knowing what to prioritise and where to start. With labour critical to support operations in many of these environments and organisations challenged with optimising workflows, we find that enabling the mobile worker with digital tools is the optimal jumping off point.” 

In terms of drivers for change, Litter maintains that the impacts of COVID-19 highlighted inefficiencies in the manufacturing sector. “Many factories were shut down at the start of the pandemic,” he reflects. “When factories reopened, business operations had to adapt to new social distancing rules, which involved new procedures for employees. A new dynamic emerged in which employees realised their true influence on operations and business realised how much their operations were dependent on the labour force. As a result, workers are demanding more benefits and leaving at a higher rate when unsatisfied.”

To adapt, Litter points out that manufacturers are looking to technology that will give floor managers better visibility into operations, while also automating many processes; thus, reducing reliance on human labour and ensuring that when another pandemic or worldly event occurs in the future, downtime will be mitigated. “In its place, data has emerged as an invaluable tool for manufacturers in which they can look into the health of their operations and soon be able to identify and address potential issues before they escalate,” Litter explains. “The adoption of more and advanced technologies also makes each individual worker more specialised and conduct multiple workflows simultaneously and/or more efficiently.”

Real-time visibility 

According to Litter, supply chain resilience is another topic that has emerged with renewed emphasis. “Disruption has become the new normal in supply chain operations with manufacturers and their logistics and retail partners needing to adapt,” he says. “This ultimately hinges on operations/organisations that have better real-time visibility into their and their partners’ operations and are also able to adapt faster given the unpredictable supply and demand climates. This is opening the door for the adoption of more advanced data capture and product identification solutions to allow for more unique product ID and the ability to match digital and physical operations.” 

Stephan Pottel, EMEA practice lead – manufacturing, Zebra Technologies, comments: “We’re in that great place where lots of things we’ve been talking about for a while are really coming to fruition. Process automation, for example, has never been more achievable – and measurable – thanks to AMRs that are helping workforces all around the world. Frankly, Digitisation and Automation are the enablers to address pretty much every challenge faced in Manufacturing Technology, be that sustainability or labour shortages, for example. Using Machine Vision to enhance production line processes isn’t new but, combined with Fixed Industrial Scanning, it’s delivering real competitive advantage.”

Pottel considers that there are several factors driving change in Manufacturing Technology, including the desire for greater supply chain resiliency and the need for speed in an ‘on-demand’ economy. However, he believes the single biggest driver, by some distance, is the lack of skilled labour in the US and Western Europe. “If you want to attract and retain the people you need, you must make the workplace attractive by deploying the latest technology,” he says. “Our job is to work with organisations to increase productivity and job satisfaction from the same number of people. So, invest in front-line worker ergonomic technology. Automate repeatable tasks and those that are physically demanding. Empower your workforce, equip them with ergonomic devices – with the right tools they can achieve more. And if an activity is boring or involves a heavy load, why not call a robot?” 

Graham Upton, technology & innovation director & chief architect, intelligent industry, Capgemini, reflects that there is a great deal of interconnectivity taking place now between different kinds of manufacturing technology. “Some of the key buzzwords everyone is talking about include AI and machine learning – but you need to be able to do something with the data that AI is generating,” he stresses. “AI will be involved in the data mining and will be making informed decisions about maybe a production process or machine that's about to break down. However, what does that really mean to the business?

Does that mean you’ve got to stop people coming in on a certain shift, is there a need to offload your production capacity somewhere else because of machine downtime. So, you really need to take it to a different level. Many companies are now looking to install more sensors and IoT information into their facilities to give them the business intelligence they need. Pretty much everyone's ‘data rich’ at the moment, but it's what you do with the data and how you intelligently use the information that you're getting to really have pure command and control.” 

In terms of drivers for change, Upton believes COVID-19 had a major influence. “Pre-pandemic, manufacturers had their noses to the grindstone making product. Then, COVID hit and they realised they couldn’t really continue in the ways they had before. Depending on what type of product you're making you could be entirely reliant on your supply chain. Many businesses outsource around 70% of their components, so they are probably only making 30% domestically and some even less than that. These manufacturers only need one of their core suppliers to not deliver parts and their whole production process can stop.

So, these companies have to become more adaptive and flexible. What’s largely driving these changes is the need for more intelligence to better manage production and the supply chain. However, one challenge in moving towards greater digitalisation is persuading the CFOs or the CIOs to accept the business case. In a lot of instances, we’re talking about relatively new technology, so there aren’t so many examples showing where this has been done before, what the proven efficiency improvements were and whether there was a return on investment within an acceptable timeframe. The ROI is something the CFO will be looking for and that can be a huge challenge.” 

Managing pressure 

Jason Wise general manager, SATO, considers that as we look to 2023, companies across the board are having to manage pressures including cost hikes throughout the supply chain, not all of which can simply be passed on to the end customer. “Approaches to mitigate these pressures include boosting production efficiency and flexibility, enhancing workflow automation, reducing downtime and minimising wastage,” he says. Wise points out that some of SATO’s priorities include user mobility, accuracy, track-and-trace and energy-saving hardware and software, all of which reflect the new normal for business and consumers alike. “One good example is our RAIN RFID1-based asset management solution ASETRA, released in mid-November 2022, which makes inventory control and tracking and managing assets throughout the supply chain easier than ever. We sum it up with the catch phrase: ‘What if you could count… without counting?’”

As for the Internet of Things (IoT), Wise states that the SATO CL4/6NX label printers offer world-first IoT compatibility, universal functionality and design, plug-and-play connectivity and multilingual interfaces. “Easily deployed and usable almost anywhere, they can also be remotely monitored with preventative maintenance to eliminate unplanned downtime, thanks to the SATO Online Services (SOS) cloud-based solution. Virtual customer engineers remain on call around the clock, monitoring equipment 24/7 to identify problems and provide support ahead of time to keep customer operations stable.” 

Regarding key drivers for change, Wise believes sustainability is top of mind for users. “However, they also want streamlined and cost-effective operations and superior high-quality results,” he adds. “The ability to monitor the supply chain in unprecedented detail and keep a handle on all the goods in real time is a huge step towards avoiding wastage and mitigating issues such as scarcity, longer lead times and higher costs. One example of this monitoring functionality making a critical difference is the SOS cloud-based service mentioned. Parameters and data from printers can be automatically transmitted to the cloud-based maintenance solution so that components can be replaced promptly as and when needed, virtually eliminating the risk of breakdown.” 

Sheetanshu Upadhyay, research analyst, Strategic Market Research, maintains that we are in the era of IoT. “IoT acting as the main factor for all the digital transformation that is taking place within manufacturing,” he says. “So, whether in terms of smart factory, smart manufacturing, interconnected usage of sensors and so on, the basis of all those things is IoT. Returning to the topic of interconnectivity, what happens in smart factories and all the different manufacturing machinery used and the transmission of data through sensors that are deployed in this equipment means companies can control and manage data in real time.” 

Sheetanshu considers that two years or so ago, there was a lot of hype surrounding IoT and interconnectivity and all those things, but now more and more manufacturers are already using this technology to great effect, and the level of advancement within the technology is changing very rapidly. “Now, we talk about the metaverse in manufacturing and things like the digital twin. Essentially, the digital twin is nothing but a metaverse, and in the manufacturing metaverse any company can create a virtual replica of its manufacturing plant. So, before doing things in the physical world they are able to practice processes in a virtual environment so the chances of error and risk are minimised when they do these processes in a real environment.” 

For example, Sheetanshu points out that some automotive and aerospace companies building prototypes are already practising this metaverse in manufacturing/digital twin methodology in their operations. “They can work on prototypes in a virtual environment and then work towards completing the actual process in the real environment,” he explains. “So, the metaverse in manufacturing is something that is already happening and it's in effect an even more advanced stage of IoT. However, there are currently only a few industries that are using this technology, and they tend to be high-end manufacturers such as those in automotive and aerospace.” 

Connectivity across platforms

Bryan Ball, vice president, principal analyst supply chain management, Aberdeen Strategy & Research, makes the point that the ERP system is the critical transaction system for the business. “There was a point in time where people believed everything would be in the ERP system,” re reflects. “The fact of the matter is that ship has already sailed; in other words you can't be best of breed at everything and so that's where companies can fall short. Granted, you’ve got to have a transaction system to document what comes in, what goes out, what the balances are and have that speed in the financial system so that at any point in time you know where you are on your inventory, on your manpower, on a labour, on your cost and so on, You’ve got to have all those fundamentals on a dashboard for management to look at whenever they need to.”

So, Ball explains you can start with ERP for these tasks, but there’s also supply chain platforms, a global trade management platform, a procurement or supply management platform. “In manufacturing you have a manufacturing platform which might be an MES solution that incorporates all the IoT functionality running through it. So, platforms are going to integrate with platforms. That’s where things are heading. That’s not to say there still won’t be the need for one-off solutions to be integrated with the ERP. That might still need to be done. However, I think this will be done more at a platform level, otherwise you might end up with, say, 50 points of integration versus getting someone thinking at the platform level. And the value of doing that is the standardisation you can get is not unlike where you have standard interfaces. Everybody has an API, which is the connectivity part of their solution.

Anybody who’s anybody had figured out how to integrate with SAP out of a box. So, it’s not a big headache to install my solution and we could be up and going with connectivity to SAP within, say, a week. But if you have to do a lot of work around integration, that’s the type of thing that just ties IT department in knots. For example, they may not have the expertise in-house and therefore have to hire outside assistance. So, I think connectivity across platforms is the right direction.” 

The importance of visibility 

Ball also considers that because of disruptions, because of cost and because of inflation, businesses are facing a whole new realm of problems. “This puts pressure on companies to get it right up front in terms of how they plan, what they plan for, how they distribute and all the implications around disruptions that they have to adjust to,” he says. “This was the main area of improvement that was deemed most important in a survey we ran recently. And the key to managing these disruptions is visibility. Supply chain visibility is where we need improvements at the customer level for better forecasting. for better intelligence, and to get closer to our customers.

We need upstream visibility from the inbound side and upstream visibility on the supply side and we need to know what's coming in the door. I want to know the current status of my suppliers and be able to cut all the way back to the raw materials so I can react if I see something go amiss and have time to work around it. I want that visibility at my fingertips and I don’t want it to be a project to go and find the answer to a problem. For example, machine learning could kick in and say the last time you experienced this scenario these were the 10 things you considered – number two is the most cost-effective and number three probably minimises the degree of lateness. Built-in machine learning could give you those criteria.” 

Back to the platform side, Ball points out that there are point solutions that do a good job at providing this type of visibility. “However, given the value of it I've really got have that on the platform or very tightly integrated so that every time there is a change in the date my planning system knows about it and gives me an alert that says my supplier is running two days behind, what can I do about that now? So, you could have this type of visibility from key suppliers, and you might even have a supplier network portal where everyone logs on to book motion shipments. But companies really need this information in real-time.

So, is it integrated at that level and is it on the platform where I really need it and can see it? Also, is it giving me intelligence and actionable items to go after? I think the basics are there, but the integration of all those fundamentals is probably where people are currently behind. It could be within their own domain where they need to improve the visibility by better integration or elevating it to a platform level versus a point solution integration.” 

Current UK deployment status 

Where is the UK currently in terms of uptake and deployment of this type of state-of-the-art manufacturing technology? Upton believes the UK definitely has the desire to deploy more of this technology. “I was at a manufacturers’ conference in Liverpool recently and was also at the event last year. The message is still coming through that people want to embed this technology but they're struggling to get it from proof of concept. Again, this could be due to a company not being able to succeed in presenting the business case. I think SMEs are moving quicker than some of the big tier 1 OEMs. This could be in part because there's a lot of funding around for SMEs.” 

Wise believes there are a few causes for optimism, although the UK may have to play catch-up for a while. “The use of AI in medicine, for example. 85% of people in the UK support the use of AI in diagnostics and treatment, and 86% say they were happy for their anonymised health data to be shared to better diagnose medical conditions.1,” Wise explains. “Similarly, UK business has expressed a strong vote of confidence in technology-enabled solutions. A survey conducted in 2022 by SAP, the software solution provider, found that within the next year or two, 70% of UK businesses plan to adopt the latest technology to try to overcome supply chain challenges.2” 


Sheetanshu states that in Europe, Germany has the highest level of deployment of this type of technology because it has a larger manufacturing sector, including automotive. He adds that the UK is the second or third largest automotive market within this region. “So, the UK will have to adopt the technology,” he says. “It may be a gradual process, but the UK will have to transform digitally within this sector using technologies such as the metaverse manufacturing. Because of these core tier 1 markets such as automotive, there is a high chance that UK manufacturing will also be a big market for these kinds of IoT technologies.” 


How has mobility increased over the past few years within manufacturing and what types of technologies have helped to achieve this? Wise considers that a large geographical footprint and scope to supply flexibly from multiple sources has become a new-normal must in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Focusing on flexibility, our business gives our customers the tools to upscale their operations more efficiently and intelligently with smart solutions,” he says. “At SATO, we believe technology works best when it’s ‘powered on site’.

Wide adds that back in mid-November, SATO joined forces with Loftware to unveil a world-first cloud-based RFID encoding and logging solution, which centres on NiceLabel Cloud and plays a key role in supporting a mobility-first mindset. Wise cites a quote from Paul Vogt, Loftware vice president channel and alliances strategies and programs: “With today’s ‘always on’ supply chain, large enterprises print and encode millions of tags annually across multiple facilities. As a result, they require a globally integrated platform like Loftware’s NiceLabel Cloud for central data and print management.” 

Pottel makes the point that today’s digitally enabled workforce has information and communication at their fingertips and can make better decisions, deliver better results, and achieve greater job satisfaction. “When you’re on shift you can be supported in your work by mobile computers, tablets, heads up displays and wearables,” he says. “All are intuitive, easy to use and come with full support. And if a task is laborious or physically demanding, there is an AMR to help you. People working at speed means accuracy has never been more important. Effective communication between colleagues is essential and advanced software, such as Workforce Connect (WFC) supports mobility and communication across the entire team.” 

Litter makes the point that over the past few years, mobility has increased within manufacturing through the deployment of mobile devices, technologies and connectivity capabilities. “Handheld computers, tablets, notebooks and other mobile computing devices (that are often rugged) enable workers and managers to conduct workflows while moving around the shop floor,” he points out. “As barcode scanning technology has improved, manufacturers are also adopting mobile barcode scanners (or equipping mobile devices with barcode scanning peripherals).”

Additionally, Litter highlights the fact that improvements in networking/connectivity capabilities have enabled the growth of mobility in manufacturing by opening capacity for the adoption of more devices and increasing the coverage that enterprise networks can extend to. “Wi-Fi connectivity has very limited coverage, which cannot be effectively extended to outdoor environments limiting capacity,” says Litter. This, he states, can cause decreases in network speed/performance and have an impact on security measures that are vulnerable to cyber threats. “The implementation of private wireless networks has provided manufacturers with the ability to increase mobility capabilities through the adoption of more devices (including specialised ‘smart’ devices, such as torque wrenches), better coverage that extends seamlessly throughout facilities, as well as extending connectivity to outdoor operations, and better security through cellular technology,” Litter explains. 

A key challenge for organisations to adopt new technologies into existing environments, according to Litter, has been integration with the many legacy and often proprietary protocols being used. He points out that many OEMs have worked closely with industrial automation vendors to bridge that gap and simplify the integration of various technologies including label printers, mobile computers, scanning and data capture technologies into existing manufacturing workflows. 

Digital Transformation and manufacturing software 

What part is Digital Transformation playing in the development of more traditional manufacturing solutions such as ERP, Supply Chain Management, Demand Forecasting & Planning/S&OP etc? Litter believes that not only is digital transformation enabling manufacturers to adopt solutions, such as ERP, Supply Chain Management, etc, but also enhancing the capabilities of these solutions. “Vendors offering analytics packages can give manufacturers real-time insights into operations, by collecting data on assets and using AI/ML to find patterns that can identify issues that could cause downtime,” he explains. “For example, data collected from IoT sensors on manufacturing equipment can be analysed to measure the current condition of the equipment, and then predict if that equipment may break soon.

Manufacturers can then be proactive and conduct maintenance on the equipment before it malfunctions, eliminating potential downtime/loss in productivity.” According to Litter, these technologies with predictive capabilities provide a clearer view of current and future operations, which gives systems such as demand forecasting and planning more accuracy. Asset tracking is one of the most popular emerging use cases and with IoT technology being increasingly implemented, businesses can track every asset as it moves along the supply chain. Vendors of these systems are incorporating advanced technologies and focusing on being agnostic, so that manufacturers using legacy systems or looking to migrate to a new platform can easily integrate with new solutions.

With regard to ERP systems, Upton believes the challenge a lot of businesses have today is how to fit new digitally transformative technology into their legacy world. “Many companies, especially some of the big tier 1s, have decades of inherited data and enterprise systems,” he says. “If they want to adopt new technology, they've got to find a way to integrate that into those existing environments. Within the legacy environment this can be a problem, so companies are coming to us and asking if they can start again, especially in the case of their ERP. Companies have tended to buy individual applications – whether it's warehousing, financials. HR and so on. However, the latest leading ERP systems are more all-encompassing so much of the functionality required is already connected once the ERP is up and running.” 

Pottel states that a big difference occurs when solutions are tailored to the sector. “We are seeing the benefit of cloud-based software providers creating manufacturing-centric cloud services,” he explains. “There’s no shortage of data available – but it’s only valuable if it is presented in an actionable way. Advancements in AI and analytics are helping management make better decisions and leading to a reduction in ‘wasted data’. Let’s commit to not filling up the unusable data landfill.” 

Wise believes one of the pillars of accurate forecasting and planning is having an accurate real-time handle on your inventory, goods in transit and seamless track-and-trace functionality. He adds that SATO’s auto identification and data collection technologies are specifically designed to meet the unique processing needs of manufacturers across a broad range of sectors, from pharmaceutical to food products. 

Sheetanshu stresses that today’s ERP solutions have to be interoperable in order for them to be easily integrated with these complex kinds of front-end virtual software solutions, the metaverse for manufacturing and so on. “The main purpose of the ERP solution is to keep the organisational functions integrated over the front-end, mid end and back end,” he explains. “And these kinds of virtual software technologies that are managing things virtually have to be interoperable with the ERP solution. Basically, they both have to work in sync with each other.

When I talk about virtually managing things, ERP has a very important role to play here because potentially the ERP will also be working in a virtual environment. It is not necessary that the system be deployed on premise. ERP solutions are now being accessed increasingly through mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet PCs. So, ERP solutions are increasingly becoming cloud-based where companies can see what is happening in terms of bills of materials, inventory etc. on a mobile device.” 

The future

Looking ahead, Litter believes automation and predictive maintenance will be the key developments and innovations in the manufacturing technology space over the next few years. “Private networking will play (and already is playing) a key role in rolling out some of these services,” he says. “Decision makers, however, need to be able to look beyond the hype associated with many of these solutions to better align current requirements with existing commercial solutions. Networking solutions especially seem to over-hype the potential of next generation solutions. While 5G will clearly play a role, much of what organisations are looking to do today can be accomplished with more mature (less expensive) solutions (such as 4G/LTE from a connectivity) while future proofing for the advent of more available and affordable 5G solutions.” 

Wise considers that given the overwhelming focus on sustainability he mentioned earlier, linerless labels may well become more prominent. “They offer advantages in terms of ease of packaging and help mitigate industry-wide carton board material shortages by replacing cardboard sleeves,” he explains. “Fully automated application can also streamline operations considerably, with minimal input, which is invaluable given the ongoing shortage of labour.” Wise adds that so-called smart printers are not new, of course. “The ability to set a printer up and then use it independently of a PC has been around for many years. What has changed now with the arrival of application-enabled printing is the sophistication and flexibility of those printers, and their ability to grow with the customers, providing far greater levels of investment protection.

At SATO, we believe our AEP-compatible CL4/6NX printers offer business optimal future proofing in volatile and uncertain times. With powerful printing intelligence, printer operations can be customised to handle wider-ranging printing applications, simplify labelling processes and reduce business costs.” 

Pottel states that if you can combine flexibility and speed at low-cost then you’re onto something. “3D printing in manufacturing now does that and is in solid growth mode,” he says. “It’s perfect for prototyping and doing small batch runs and is being widely adopted in the automotive and aerospace industries. 3D printing can also help companies meet their environmental goals. Materials can be selected based on sustainability criteria and the ability to make changes quickly and simply to the software means that time and resources are not lost on creating expensive moulds.” The other advancement that will make a difference, according to Pottel, is the widespread arrival of 5G and the ability to run AMRs and Machine Vision, for example, from one, unified network. “Reliable, secure connectivity is at the forefront of productivity,” he says. 


Pottel adds that, in healthcare, technology investment drives supply chain resiliency and helps improve traceability. “Our Pharmaceutical Vision Study 2022 revealed 92% of decision-makers plan to increase IT spending on supply chain monitoring tools over the next 12 months,” he points out. “Location technology, temperature monitors and sensors, temperature-sensitive labels, prescriptive analytics, and machine learning will all become more widely adopted over the next 5 years.” According to Pottel, there is also huge potential to improve supply chain visibility in automotive manufacturing. This month (December), we are launching our Automotive Ecosystem Vision Study, which reveals high demand for knowing the origin and sustainability level of materials and automotive parts as well as receiving an end-to-end view of the manufacturing process.

Request a copy of the study,

Upton is seeing a lot more need for the intelligent digital twin. Digital twins are virtual replicas of physical systems that can model, simulate, monitor, analyse, and constantly optimise the physical world. For example, Upton explains that through making a digital twin of individual models or subsets of the manufacturing environment, a company is able to work scenarios quickly through the twin before doing so in the physical world in order to better judge what the best decisions or likely outcomes could be. “It's really where you put the knowledge the business has into the twin,” he says.

Model-Based Systems Engineering 

Upton also points out that Capgemini is developing a concept called Model-Based Systems Engineering (MBSE). This provides modern modelling methods to help engineering teams manage the complexity of systems from conceptual design through to end-of-life. Competitive and regulatory pressures are forcing businesses to create products that are more intelligent and connected. However, this increased complexity makes products more difficult to design, assemble and manage across multiple domains. That’s why Capgemini and Dassault Systèmes have come together to turn engineering complexity into competitive advantage by using the latest MBSE techniques and designed solutions to specify system behaviour, master interfaces and ensure cross-discipline collaboration.

Sheetanshu reiterates that the ERP industry is transforming because vendors are increasingly moving to cloud-based ERP solutions rather than on-premise solutions. “This shift to the cloud will continue because most of the IoT and AI solutions etc. are now very interoperable with cloud-based software applications. On-premise ERP solutions can also be more costly for organisations to deploy.” 

Sheetanshu adds that things are changing very rapidly. “Five or six years ago we used to speak about smart factory as if it were a very big thing. Now, whether you talk about healthcare, automotive, aerospace or defence, the smart factory is becoming a necessity and most of the industrial components that are being manufactured with the help of sensors and controllers are being manufactured in such a way that companies can simulate processes in real-time and though Internet connectivity be able to transmit data and information in real-time.

Many companies are already adopting this type of technology. For SMEs, they are looking more for solutions such as ERP that are cloud-based and AI based, so those kinds of solutions will gain more adoption, and on-premise ERP solutions will lose more market share over the next three or four years.”

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