Five enterprise IT trends shaping the future of manufacturing

Back in the 1990s, there was much talk of the ‘lights out’ Factory of the Future, staffed entirely by robots—hence the absence of interior lighting. It didn’t happen. And perhaps it never will. Instead, today’s understanding of the Factory of the Future is much more grounded in achievable reality. While robots have their place, goes today’s thinking, so too do people, and flexible multi-purpose machinery.

Which isn’t to say that impressive technologies won’t be part of the picture. Simply that those technologies will be more of an evolution from where we are today, rather than some bold leap into a brave new world.
 
In particular, it seems likely that those technologies will be grounded in enterprise IT, rather than hi-tech robotics, advanced manufacturing processes, and innovations such as 3D printing.
 
So which new enterprise IT technologies will shape the way that manufacturers go to market, serve their customers, and fulfil their customers’ requirements?
 
It’s a tough call. Because—as with all those confident forecasts of the ‘lights out’ Factory of the Future—predicting the future is never easy. 
 
Nevertheless, here at KCS Datawright, we recognize that our job is to stay abreast of the fast-changing technologies that underpin and drive enterprise IT. So read on, for our take on five key technology trends set to change your manufacturing business over the next few years.
 
 
#Wearable computing
There have been some amazing advances in small form-factor computers—just look at the smartphone that you’ve probably got in your pocket. But these are still devices that have to be carried around, can be lost or mislaid, and call for conscious action in terms of usage. You have to specifically switch them on, for instance, and actually look at them. 
 
Now imagine a computer that’s physically attached to you, requiring just a glance. In fact, don’t imagine it: it’s here already, in the shape of the Apple Watch, and Google Glass.
 
The latter is wearable computing as a pair of spectacles—on sale today, although the price-tag isn’t cheap. With Google Glass, you can play music, see a computer screen, check e-mail or watch videos.
 
Potential usage in a manufacturing context? Well, what about watching a video—complete with text and sound—regarding an assembly that you’re about to build. Or getting step-by-step instructions as you actually undertake that build.
 
 
#The Internet of Things
As consumers, we’re used to using the Internet to interact with other consumers, and to access services on remote servers: Facebook, YouTube, iPlayer and so on. Now imagine using the Internet to interact with devices, instead. In a nutshell, that’s the Internet of Things.
 
How will we use it? As consumers, we might want to turn the heating up at home, before we get there. Or turn the oven on. Or check the contents of the fridge, before calling at the shops on the way home.
 
But for manufacturers, the use cases are even more compelling. Machines on customer premises, for instance, which ‘call home’ when they need servicing, or require consumables replacing, in much the same way that inkjet printers can do now. New billing models are another opportunity: with the Internet of Things, instead of selling machines outright, it’s possible charge for machines by their amount of use—the number of pallets wrapped, for instance, or the number of injection moulding components produced.
 
The challenge in all this? First, achieving two-way communication over the Internet of Things securely, and safely. Second, interfacing these new use cases and billing models into ERP. Rest assured that at KCS Datawright, we’re working on both, right now. 
 
 
#Big data, analytics, and dashboards
According to well-informed sources, Amazon.com’s well-known “Customers who bought this also bought …”recommendation engine contributes about 20% of the firm’s revenues.
 
It’s powered by clever analytics that mines Big Data to see the connections between millions of purchases. And in the years to come, ordinary businesses will routinely be doing the same, to spot vital clues as to instances where demand is cross-linked, enabling better targeting of offers and promotions. Your business probably isn’t doing that now—but it could be soon.
 
And from a management point of view, analytics-driven user-specific ‘dashboards’ will be how businesses are managed. Forget bulky reports and wading through screens of data: everything an individual manager needs to know will be presented to them on a dashboard, red-flagged or green-lit as appropriate. Plus, the ability to ‘drill down’ into exceptions, to see the underlying causal factors that have given rise to situations that haven’t gone to plan.
 
Leading businesses are doing this today, but only through expensive Business Intelligence applications. But in the future, this is the way that enterprise IT will work, out of the box.
 
 
#Mobile computing
The coming era of mobile computing offers an intriguing proposition: mobile devices delivering connectivity and enterprise applications at any time, in any place, and on any platform.
 
Because in terms of enterprise IT, the days of a Windows-only world have gone. Tablet computers powered by Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems have made all the running over the last five years, with Google Linux-derived Chromebooks showing just how inexpensive mobile laptops can be.
 
The moral for manufacturers? Enterprise IT of the future will need to support not only a truly platform-independent mobile device, but also the ‘Bring Your Own Device’ paradigm, where employees expect to be able to access enterprise applications on their own everyday mobile devices, rather than lug around another device, just for work.
 
 
#Truly connected supply chains
Electronic communication along supply chains isn’t new. EDI, for instance, goes back to the mid-1980s. And the Internet has delivered further significant advances in how manufacturers communicate with customers and suppliers: portals, XML, supplier collaboration networks, web services, and B2B marketplaces such as Ariba.
 
The trouble is, each of these advances is simply a different take on the electronic aspect of the transactions that are taking place. In other words, the decisions and communication process undertaken by the humans in the supply chain haven’t really changed.
 
Yet it’s those human-driven decisions and communication processes that make up a lot of the elapsed time in supply chain processes. Electronic processes take just seconds, more or less irrespective of the technology of choice.
 
Our guess: that will start to change, and soon. Once an MRP process has calculated a requirement, why wait for it to be reviewed before issuing purchase orders, schedules and call-offs?
 
It’s a development that already happens in some of the world’s very largest manufacturing companies, and we expect to see such ‘server-to-server’ communication gradually migrate to smaller manufacturing businesses over the next few years.
 
 
Roll it all together, and what do we have? Five different takes on enterprise IT, from five fast-changing technology paradigms.
 
Will it all come to pass, exactly as we’ve described? Probably not: no forecast is ever 100% correct, and the world of technology development takes some interesting twists and turns. After all, who predicted the iPad?
 
But one thing is certain: those who do take the time to think about the future will be better prepared when it arrives.