The Western world is addicted to cheap products manufactured in China and other Asian countries. Our appetite destroyed much of our own manufacturing base and made us dependent on manufacturing facilities far from our shores. The current congestion in supply chains responsible for getting products from manufacturers to the consumers who are thousands of miles away now means long delays and higher costs that negate the perceived value of these products. Using technology upgrades, like the ones discussed below, may bring manufacturing back to the West; making it profitable to manage manufacturing in a way the reduces the impact of the supply chain issues we’re currently experiencing.
Technology upgrades to manufacturing and shipping
Above, you see the relationship between manufacturers and consumers that are mediated by members of the supply chain including distribution centers (warehouses), transportation providers including trucks and ships, retail outlets, e-commerce platforms, and others that must work in tandem toward a singular goal. Coordinating these activities is challenging given the vagaries of predicting future demand that sets production schedules, weather that interferes with the smooth operation of transportation vehicles, a serious lack of truck drivers (especially in England due to Brexit), manufacturing workers (especially in Asia where the pandemic caused massive challenges), and many other factors that can stall or shut down the supply chain.
However, technology upgrades to supply chain operations at all levels offer a means to solve some of the problems currently accounting for poor supply chain functions and fewer products available in stores. Technology upgrades include software to make instant calculations to optimize the supply chain at various levels and hardware that removes the vagaries of relying on human workers. Given the vast increase in the cost of transportation, these technology upgrades now argue in favor of locating the means of production closer to consumer markets and offer to make this change financially viable by reducing the wage differential between Asian and Western countries.
Actually, the supply chain and its relationships to where customer markets exist always impacted sourcing decisions. For instance, manufacturers brought production back to the US due to a number of factors such as ensuring a steady supply of products and taking advantage of productivity gains possible in areas where workers are better educated. Manufacturing is, in a sense, always “advancing” since somebody, somewhere is using the latest technologies in their production processes. That’s been going on since the industrial revolution more than 200 years ago.
If this sounds interesting, read on to learn more about the technology upgrades.
A shift in focus
However, given the pace of technological change over the last decade or so, the distinction between traditional and advanced manufacturing operations is increasingly germane. There are just so many innovative technologies out there that the manufacturing of the future probably won’t look anything like that of the past. We’re seeing developments in foam lamination, molding, welding, brazing, machining, and workflow patterns that reduce costs.
The defining characteristics of traditional manufacturing were mass production, a hierarchical organizational structure, and the use of unskilled or semi-skilled labor. Infrastructure was primarily physical and most investments went into factory plant and equipment.
Advanced manufacturing is different. It focuses on creating low-volume, niche consumer products at scale; allowing for flexible production schedules and nimble response to changes in consumer demands. The organizational structure is flat and composed of highly skilled individuals who reinvest company resources into research and development.
As such, we are seeing a range of advanced manufacturing technologies going mainstream.
Nanotechnology is no longer a figment of futurist Ray Kurzweil’s imagination. Instead, as predicted, it is now becoming a reality in many manufacturing firms. The idea is to build tiny structures that do product manufacturing by themselves, once you supply them with sufficient energy. So far, nanotechnology is based on light spectroscopy and chemical reactivity. But firms are also looking to change their processes in a way that allows them to begin to “scale down” so that they can reach a critical level where new processes occur. Thus, miniaturization is going to start bleeding out of traditional semiconductor production and into other areas. Below, you can see the size and operations for nanotechnology.
Currently, most applications of nanotechnology are in medicine, but new operations are branching from manufacturing based on steel plants and chemical factors to nanotechnology-based operations where raw materials consisting of elements like carbon recombined to create desired products. For instance, combining carbon atoms in different structures can create tubes, wires, and other structures with the tinsel strength of a diamond.
Lasers are more accurate than other cutting tools, making precise, repeatable cuts with low tolerance. Using this technology upgrade translates into finished products with less waste, fewer reworks, and higher finished quality due to the precision. The goal of high-precision equipment is to also limit heat transfer to the material, which may warp or discolor the material. Lasers cut intermittently, retaining the integrity of the material around the cut, reducing cracking and poor joining. Laser machining is vital for sensitive electronics production, battery welding, and sensor installation.
Researchers have promised improved materials for many years now, but progress is slow. Research and development are not progressing at the rate that many had hoped. However, that is changing because of breakthroughs in other areas. Manufacturers are now better able to model materials and outcomes on computers using AI-powered software, enabling them to test material properties more thoroughly, without actually having to put them into a product. We see the emergence of advanced ceramics, high-strength alloys, and many other materials.
Robots are also starting to do some pretty freaky things.
In manufacturing, you’re likely to see the increased use of robots since they never take time off, are able to work in conditions that are hazardous for humans, and surpass humans in strength. Robots are more intelligent than ever before, although they are nowhere near as intelligent as humans. They are great for performing repetitive motions without failing but they’re not good for anything requiring more than simple deductive reasoning. They also don’t see well, so they have difficulty adjusting to changes in the environment or taking visual cues. Rising labor rates combined with falling unit costs for robots likely mean an automation revolution the likes of which the world has never seen before are on the horizon.
Used extensively in automobile and other manufacturing operations, this technology upgrade is increasingly common in warehouse operations, where Amazon is testing them alongside human packers, as well as some industries where you never expected to see robots, such as in surgery.
With improvements in visual acuity and the ability to process thousands of pieces of information instantly, self-driving vehicles are on the horizon. First to make the transition are self-driving trucks to reduce the concentration of products at the ports awaiting transportation to local warehouses and stores.
These are but of few of the many technology upgrades either making inroads into the supply chain today or in the near future. If you want to compete in the world of tomorrow, consider adding a few of these technologies today.
Need marketing help to support business growth?
We welcome the opportunity to show you how we can make your marketing SIZZLE with our data-driven, results-oriented marketing strategies. Sign up for our FREE newsletter, get our FREE guide to creating an awesome website, or contact us for more information on hiring us.
Hausman and Associates, the publisher of MKT Maven, is a full-service marketing agency operating at the intersection of marketing and digital media. Check out our full range of services.