Since the first Industrial Revolution, technology has been the primary enabler of productivity in manufacturing. Early developments were mechanised such as Edmund Cartwright’s loom in 1784 which was based on a shaft drive and enabled textile production beyond labour based methods. A second productivity leap was evident by the late 1800s, resulting from the introduction of electrical energy (conveyors driven by electrical motors for example) and labour division concepts that became central to the success of mass production since their first use in the slaughterhouses and meat packing businesses of Cincinnati around 1825. It wasn’t until the 1960s however that a third significant productivity change was achieved. This was when factories began to exploit intelligent manufacturing technology and programmable automation and robotic systems were introduced making growth possible in key sectors like automotive and electronics.
Today, manufacturing is changing faster than ever before and the drivers for this include globalisation, individualisation, time to market and sustainability. Energy and resource efficiency are increasingly decisive factors in manufacturing competitiveness, even in developing economies which are adopting automation technology at rates that look set to further improve their traditional cost advantage.
Globalisation is driving the need for shorter innovation cycles, as time-to-market represents a competitive advantage for an increasing number of products. Localisation agendas are more apparent all over the globe too, driven by interests in local manufacturing and jobs. Manufactured products themselves are becoming more complex and data generated from their production, distribution and use is growing exponentially.
Though domestic manufacturing automation levels remain comparatively low, there are considerable differences across sectors looking set to shape future investment behaviour with automotive at the leading- edge and the food sector the arguable laggard here. With much supplier and platform consolidation, the industry has seen a shift from numerous suppliers and bespoke systems to the increasing use of standardised commercial technology across multiple sectors.
Manufacturing technology itself is also developing at a faster rate, largely due to the pace of change in microprocessor, communications and information technology. Much like consumer tech, industrial automation technology continues to offer users greater processing power, more memory, richer software features, smaller footprints and lower relative costs. The cost comparative is true for industrial robots too, which from just £15,000 also offer faster returns than ever before.
User expectations of automation technology are changing too, but ease of use, long life-cycle and remote access to information are consistently highlighted amongst their needs with today’s plant manager expecting real-time data delivered to their smart device to aid decision making on the move.
Five key technology development areas are set to continue to influence manufacturing. They are: industrial software, energy monitoring & control, industrial wireless and distributed intelligence, safety systems and cyber security.