Customer needs and expectations are the driving force behind product development and manufacturing. Customers want product options and personalization. Customers want customized products manufactured and delivered quickly, and increasingly, customers expect manufacturers to align with their values. Although the traditional manufacturing goals of efficiency, accuracy, and safety remain relevant, manufacturing environments are trending toward new characteristics, such as being agile, accessible, data-driven, collaborative, resilient, and sustainable. The following examines these characteristics and how they help meet customers’ rapidly evolving needs and expectations.
Agile systems are rooted in batch production approaches, where the base product is mass-produced, but customization is carried out in batches—say, producing one batch with red paint, another with blue, and another with pink. Agility relates to market changes and what customers want; it changes the concept of producing one or two variations to instead offering those variations as options, taking manufacturing from customizing products to personalizing them. Whereas customization leads to customer satisfaction, personalization has an aspect of customer delight attached to it.
The most advanced systems produce each product as a separate order along the production line, using customer data to drive personalization. Imagine ordering a product during the week of your birthday, for example. The manufacturer might add a birthday note in the box or print “Happy Birthday!” on the packaging to personalize the product. Or, say you have been researching meal delivery services online: A manufacturer might put a coupon in the box for a popular food delivery service. With batch production processes combined with customer data, manufacturers can do a lot to personalize products and not just satisfy customers but delight them.
In industrial automation, accessibility refers to two different aspects. First, accessibility refers to connecting a distributed workforce through integrated, secure systems. Such systems have been evolving for decades, but only recently have the technologies necessary converged to enable seamless and secure collaboration. In earlier decades, we saw various components and pieces of technology make collaboration possible, but only now do we have what we need to fully integrate distributed workforces, resources, and services across all aspects of business.
Second, accessibility refers to integrating human factors into system design in terms of ease of use for installers, operators, technicians, floor workers, and others. Designing with humans in mind used to be an afterthought or a nicety. Now, companies realize that the installers, operators, and all the rest are the consumers in these cases. Therefore, considering human factors and applying related guidelines are important parts of design success.
In both cases, cloud infrastructure, with system integrators such as infrastructure as a service, platform as a service, software as a service, and similar concepts are the most significant enablers of accessibility. Teams working in real-time with minimum lag time provide considerable extensibility for the types of collaboration possible. Augmented reality (AR) is a good example. Rather than engineers, technicians, manufacturers, and other stakeholders flying in to install, operate, troubleshoot, or repair a mechanical system, AR enables stakeholders to access data analytics, see the system in real-time, and use visual overlays to make repairs or alterations. The efficiencies related to cost, time, and product life cycle are already significant, and we can expect them to increase the number of AR technologies improved over time.