Future-proofing Your Manufacturing Business for Long-term Success

future-proofing manufacturing

When folks think about futureproofing a manufacturing business, they think about expensive equipment like robots and the latest manufacturing equipment. And, certainly, updating your facility is a part of future-proofing your business. For instance, I grew up in Pittsburgh at the time when steel was king and you could see steel mills all along the rivers. My grandfather, an immigrant with very little knowledge of English, found his career working in the mills to support his family and put his kids through college. Yet, if you drive through the Pittsburgh area now, all you see are shuttered mills, boarded-up shops, and decaying neighborhoods. Sure, many blame the crumbling steel industry on foreign competition but the underlying reason for the failure is that steel magnates didn’t work to future-proof their operations so their costs were higher than foreign competitors with more technologically advanced operations.

future-proofing manufacturing
Image courtesy of AMS

Let’s now dwell on why the owners of these steel mills weren’t interested in future-proofing their manufacturing operations but suffice it to say that once challenged, investing in the future of steel was too expensive and too time-consuming. That’s why futureproofing is an ongoing concern, especially for manufacturing businesses since many involve the same issues of expense and time. Hence, future-proofing is an ongoing issue that companies must plan and budget for if they wish to survive, unlike our steel industry. So, today, we’ll discuss some universal issues manufacturers should consider as they build plans for the future.

Future-proofing manufacturing

As mentioned, the biggest factor in future-proofing your manufacturing business is sensing the winds of change and building concrete plans for adapting to changes in technology, markets, and regulations. There’s only so much any manufacturer can do to affect the long-term forces of change impacting their industry.

The sensing part of this equation relies on more than simply scanning the environment to see what’s out there. It relies on building predictive models based on current data to predict what the future might look like. Thus, using metrics on both internal data and data gleaned from external sources helps build out analytical models so a manufacturing operation can plan for adapting to predicted changes.

Here are just a few of the many potential changes coming down the road that likely impact the future of your manufacturing operation.

Making the most of smart technology

Manufacturers must increasingly adopt digital and advanced technologies to ensure the survival of their operations. It’s also important to remember that technology is not necessarily about driving the company into the future, but it’s also about making the most of existing technologies to build competencies and resiliency into your business today. You can achieve the future with a number of modest upgrades to your technology even if you can’t afford to transform your manufacturing facility into a totally smart operation.

For instance, AI (artificial intelligence) supports many manufacturing operations to reduce costs and increase efficiency, such as monitoring equipment to reduce the chance for damage if the equipment operates outside of tolerances. You don’t have to scrap your existing equipment (see below) to gain an advantage from AI as there are systems you can integrate with your existing equipment that add this capability.

data asset
Image courtesy of Digi

And there is even a place for voice solutions in manufacturing plants by using voice-activated functions. It’s important to come at the notion of smart technology from a holistic perspective. Smart technology doesn’t have to be contemporary, as long as it makes the business work in the right ways, it is doing its job.

Upskill your workforce

As the industrial workforce gets older, it is now imperative that businesses attract recruits that possess the right knowledge and skills. For instance, I consulted with a manufacturing operation still using templates to cut materials by hand as their existing workforce couldn’t operation computer-aided manufacturing machinery, which cost the firm a bundle.

There is a massive skills gap in the manufacturing industry, and therefore, organizations should consider investigating transferable talent and skills. Because it’s not just about incorporating technology, it’s about identifying where your employees need to take on new challenges of the developing industries.

Offer something more

Future=proofing your manufacturing business doesn’t only mean doing things differently, it means doing different things, ie. building products with future growth potential. If you’re trying to keep your edge, you’ve got to differentiate by offering something more. It is more important than ever to offer a number of different services in order to diversify your products and drive growth. Because diverse companies produce 19% more revenue, diversifying into new products and services is a consideration in your future-proofing plan.

There are many options when it comes to diversification. For example, you might build a product extension or take advantage of your brand image to build a totally new product for your existing market. Sometimes, the financial realities inherent in making a new product make the transition seem risky but remember that products become obsolete over time so you’re in better shape with a new product with high demand in the future, rather than waiting for demand for your existing products to decline.

Rather than jumping in with both feet, however, you could offer trial runs of certain products to see how it performs in a real market before phasing out your existing products or facing severe cannibalization. When you start to create additional revenue streams, you are offering something more, but you are also hedging your bets. Many manufacturers now utilize servitization, which is the process of providing different services and solutions to supplement what they already offer, and therefore provide additional income streams.

Attract new talent

Not all the talent you attract to your operation is human, as machines become smarter and more capable. Robots have certain advantages over humans in that they don’t take a day off and never call in sick. They can also lift more, withstand more environments without damage, and are great at repeating mundane motions over and over without mistake. Amazon, for instance, is testing robotic workers for their warehouse operations alongside their human workers.

This process us substituting machines for humans is controversial, as many fear losing jobs to these machines. The steel unions made the same arguments against modernizing before the collapse of the entire industry, which left many workers without jobs or prospects. A slower transition to new equipment in the steel industry allowed time for worker attrition via natural causes (retirement, for example) and the slow process of retraining workers for jobs of the future. We seem on the brink of making the same mistake again with our unwillingness to replace low-wage, low-skilled workers with machines, a process that will likely happen eventually.

Thus, future-proofing also means planning for the workforce of the future. Investing in training your employees to supervise, maintain, and repair your mechanical workers of the future makes more sense than clinging to a way of working that won’t exist in the foreseeable future. Proving my point, automobile plants marry the skills of mechanical and human workers to take advantage of the skills inherent in each type of worker.

Invest in modern Enterprise Resource Planning systems (ERPs)

New technology is all well and good, but it only serves the industry if it comes with the right support. That’s where an Enterprise Resource Planning system (ERPs) helps enable seamless communication across every department. Technology is the most exciting aspect of manufacturing, however, in order to drive business growth, it’s got to be human. And while the manufacturing industry is looking bright, a modern ERP is a great asset to improve businesses and the industry as a whole. This is why we have to focus on reading out operational inefficiencies to improve technology, well also utilizing it for the right reasons.

Conclusion

Future-proofing your manufacturing business ensures a bright future for your business. If you are looking to bring the future into what you are offering, don’t be fooled that technology is the be-all and end-all. Technology is the wave that we all ride into the next period of business, however, we must realize that the future is a combination of methods, from human to technology and everything in between. When we utilize the right ratio, this will make a significant difference to your business and ensure that the future comes knocking.

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