You snooze, you lose! That’s probably the best phrase to sum up what manufacturers across the world are experiencing in today’s highly competitive landscape. Manufacturers can no longer take a ‘wait and see’ approach as they are met with the opportunities and challenges posed by the concept of Industry 4.0. Well, it’s actually not just a concept, but a reality, that defines how manufacturers automate and adopt technologies that make them smarter.
A nation’s economy is tightly intertwined with its manufacturing output. According to the World Trade Organisation, 80% of the global trade activity between all regions is classified as manufactured goods, versus 20% as services. It is no wonder, then, that countries around the world are locked in a competitive race to become the next manufacturing hub. And many nations in the Asia Pacific are strong contenders.
For the last 20 years, China has been a steadfast superfactory for low-cost, low-value manufacturing, supplying the world with everyday commodities from food to apparel. As China moves into high-value manufacturing, a vacancy for low-value manufacturing has opened up. With its huge local market of 1.2 billion consumers, a large base of university graduates and engineers, and a friendly policy environment, India exhibits the potential to take over China to become the powerhouse for low-value manufacturing in the near future.
Comparatively developed countries like Australia, Japan, Korea, and Singapore are already in the business of manufacturing complex, innovative products. Singapore has sustained strong manufacturing growth for the last 12 months as of August, painting a bright picture for the future economy. Thailand retains a strong foothold in high-value manufacturing, enjoying a stable production in the automotive, electronics, food, and chemical-related industries. Indonesia’s manufacturing sector continues to be the nation’s biggest GDP contributor, despite a decline in the past three years.
Although these APAC countries are at different stages of transformation, and they all have their eyes on technology adoption to boost their manufacturing sector. Their intentions are telling from the findings in Zebra Technologies’ Manufacturing Vision Study.
Industry 4.0 will shake things up for manufacturers
One key insight from the study is the rise of Industry 4.0 in the region. This refers to the creation of smart factories that give manufacturers actionable visibility of their operations at every stage.
Manufacturers will be able to gain visibility of their goods at every stage of production, and the status of their assets through both proactive and reactive services to minimise downtime. In addition, the increased operational visibility will allow these manufacturers to ensure that its people are accounted for and optimise their productivity on the plant floor. With smart technologies, smart factories can ensure that enterprise processes and regulatory compliance are met throughout the manufacturing cycle. Finally, smart factories also benefit from increased security and safety.
To accomplish that, employees and plant floors are equipped with a range of technologies such as wearable technologies, Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity, radio-frequency identification (RFID) solutions, and real-time location systems (RTLS) to achieve visibility over every aspect of their operations, including goods, assets, and processes. The study estimates the number of manufacturers in the region supporting fully connected factories would nearly triple over the next five years to reach 46 per cent by 2022, significantly ahead of the worldwide average.
Technology adoption is non-negotiable
While there are lingering concerns that automation and robotics will eventually displace the low-skill jobs on the factory floor, many industry experts and economists concede that it will be an irreversible trend. The earlier the manufacturers shore up technology and start upskilling the workers, the less painful the transition will be later.
In today’s vast and busy factories, it can be daunting to do everything manually, not to mention it is extremely slow, inefficient, and prone to mistakes. Increasingly, factory workers are offloading tasks to their technological helpers. The Zebra survey shows that in 2022, 72% of factories will arm their workers with mobile technology such as handheld computers, printers, and scanners. These mobile devices can assist the workers in looking up and recording information, and generating and inputting product labels.
Wearable and voice-directed technology are on the rise too, with 65% and 51% of respondents planning to implement them for the workers. While wearable technology is relatively new, it unlocks potential for monitoring worker safety and locations in the factory, therefore allowing operation managers to quickly attend to workplace safety events and more effectively allocate manpower in different stages, leading to improved productivity.
Voice-directed technology, on the other hand, is proving to be popular for large companies managing immense factories. Voice technology allows workers to carry out a task with both hands and receive or give instructions at the same time, elevating efficiency and productivity. What’s more, many of the big manufacturers also rely on voice technology to efficiently coordinate for just-in-time (JIT) shipments, which are typically hectic and labour intensive.
RFID, a cousin to barcode technology and a building block for IoT, is also playing a key role in connecting the factories from point to point, corner to corner, by giving the goods a digital voice and allowing them to be ‘heard’ and, therefore, tracked in real time. An RFID tag can contain much more information than what is traditionally printed on a pallet, including detailed work instructions, bill of materials, and tracking numbers, helping workers better move the goods through a production line. Today, RFID is used to vastly improve order accuracy and traceability of an item. By 2022, only 9% of the factories will be devoid of RFID.
Finally, RTLS are becoming popular among manufacturers, too. In the past, manufacturers only tracked their products at the goods-in and goods-out stages of the process, making it extremely challenging to accurately locate the source of a quality issue should one occur. This has contributed to unnecessary spending on rectifying the issue. RTLS comes to the rescue by illuminating the typically dark, obscure production process and monitoring quality issues.
That is not the only benefit. Manufacturers can also deploy RTLS to collect critical data about assets including location, stage, and condition – actionable information for factory managers to make better business decisions. These data can also be sent quickly to internal and external suppliers, so they can respond to restocking requests or demand surge swiftly. Unsurprisingly, by 2022, more than 55% of factories will be furnished with RTLS.
Manufacturing is no longer about simply making things. It will be about making high-quality things in the precise moment when they are needed – and even where they are needed (with 3D printing). Manufacturers also need to increasingly diversify their product variants, adding to the complexity in production. With trends such as mobility, robotics, automation, and IoT, the competition is heating up in the manufacturing industry.
By 2022, half of the manufacturers in APAC will have smart factories, compared to one third as the global average. Are you ready to make it big by turning your operations into an intelligent enterprise, or will you choose to stay behind?
Jason Low is the APAC lead for Specialty Printing Group, Zebra Technologies Asia Pacific.