How Will Autonomous Manufacturing Lead Reshoring Initiatives?01 February 2023
With the dawn of 2023 having just broken, the transferral of manufacturing from offshored locations back to home shores has only continued to persist, fixing this movement as a trend that’s here to stay.
Though the peak of COVID-19 may now lie behind us, supply chain complications have been no less disruptive, particularly in light of tense geopolitical relationships tangling further and further. The difficult circumstances of contemporary manufacturing evolving over the past few years continuously pinpoint onshoring and reshoring as potentially powerful solutions.
The trend’s perseverance, however, makes even more pressing the complexities attached to actually implementing it successfully.
An article by Verdict, echoing the prediction of onshoring’s lasting popularity in the new year, gestures towards the expense of relocation, coming at a “high cost”: inexperienced workforces, higher operative costs and broadly immature governance of these processes all appear as important concerns.
Whilst many studies and articles have dug into the use-case for automation here, autonomous technologies – entirely self-regulated and self-improving manufacturing – are yet to significantly enter the limelight as a robust solution. This article intends to change that.
With the number of manufacturing firms and plants in the US dwindling by approximately 25% since 1997, as a McKinsey article reports, breathing new life and prosperity into the sector is more important now than it ever has been.
We’ve explored exactly how autonomous manufacturing is suited peerlessly to the task.
Where offshored efforts involve drawing ties across oceans, a task which can make coordination and transparency a struggle to upkeep, onshored autonomous manufacturing introduces transformative traceability.
Though imperative to business operations, control is exceedingly difficult to obtain in offshored contexts. Not only are operations impossible to physically reach, relying on often remote communication to settle smoothly, but they can become caught up in wider miscommunications, shifting global relationships, and the events which follow. This is only amplified further with other unpredictable phenomena, from pandemics to unexpected climate disruptions.
The only constant may be change. But this is no reason to yield to industrial disorder at its mercy.
Onshored autonomous manufacturing presents an option which changes the game. Relying on digital synergy by way of IIoT, all operations within autonomous factory spaces are recorded and documented, providing manufacturers with an accurate, live cross-section of their operations. Whether providing a base-level status update of the most crucial mechanisms, or supporting a deeper dive into the specifics of a particular process, businesses sit firmly in the cockpit where autonomous manufacturing is employed.
Running a factory led by self-governing robots rather than human workers similarly affords improved control, sweeping out a large source of unpredictability. Adherence to the changing human conditions of a factory workspace, let alone at a distance, sinks in importance. Ensuring that workers are accounted for as autonomous technologies arrive will be critical, with reallocation and upskilling playing vital roles in the move.
Unpredictability, of course, pervades the world of hardware with equal force. With autonomous systems, unexpected disruptions like system faults or machine breakdowns need not escalate into serious delays. Indeed, machine faults can not only be identified early on and directly addressed, but also in some cases predicted beforehand, by way of smart data analysis. Occurring within a physically accessible space, any issues can be swiftly resolved, closing the bottleneck and allowing processes to resume.
Autonomous technologies alone will not offer this crucial advantage. MES and workflow software like AMFG’s will be integral to the move, channelling the valuable updates and insights collected by machines through an accessible GUI. Harmony between hardware and software is the key to the growth of autonomous technologies, a subject we explore further in a separate article: ‘How The Autonomous Manufacturing Revolution Relies on Successful Workflow Software’.
Consistent visibility in manufacturing can be make or break; the combination of physical and digital traceability can firmly deliver success.
Geared Towards Growth
Having a tool by which to control operations is undoubtedly useful. Nonetheless, pure consistency is not what businesses thrive on. Upscaling is.
Onshored autonomous manufacturing offers companies the unique opportunity for shop floor processes to actively participate in driving business improvements. Achieved through the combination of automation and machine learning, autonomous systems are designed to independently improve as they absorb new flows of information, second by second.
The very same constant stream of data enabling manufacturers to maintain a close insight into operations can also serve as a valuable pool for growth, accessible and usable both by businesses and by machines themselves.
Intelligently analysing the Big Data generated by sensors during operations, the independence inherent within autonomous manufacturing adapts it to each business’ own independent framework. It learns from and offers improvements specific to each industry, each company, and each factory.
Machine learning’s powerful potential has locked in its industrial prominence for years to come, a perspective with which MIT computer science professor Aleksander Madry aligns. “Machine learning is changing, or will change, every industry,” he claims, adding that “I don’t think anyone can afford not to be aware of what’s happening.”
Autonomous manufacturing dismantles concerns that onshored operations will be somehow less effective, due to factors ranging from higher labour costs and limited talent pools. Dramatically alternative routes to replicating offshored operations in a ‘home’ context are not only available, but powerfully effective. Processes can not only proceed with efficiency, but also with innovative access to procedural improvements.
Where autonomous manufacturing is concerned, the drive to improve lies on either side of the shortened supply “chain”.
Improving Customer Relationships
For both B2B and B2C business, listening to buyers and bettering systems in light of their feedback affords the flexibility necessary to move and change with the market. In more ways than one, offshoring can tend to block this adaptability.
Short lead times have for years been an important measure of success. With the unpredictability, complexity and sheer physical distance introduced by offshoring, however, delivering to the highest standards possible has become increasingly difficult, with turnaround times stretching further and further.
Implementing autonomous manufacturing in an offshored context, facilitating increased efficiency and productivity, combines the tools necessary to revert this trend. Specifically where US-based customers are ordering from US-based businesses, improved physical proximity between product and consumer proffers to reduce lead times, a valuable development in a buyer culture increasingly prone to impatience.
Whilst quick response time has always been esteemed in business contexts, new factors are also beginning to sway buyer inclinations. As Generation Z begins to enter the marketplace, predicted to hold at least $1.2 billion dollars of disposable income and occupy 31% of the modern workforce by 2024, their values will begin to hold greater influence over business success. One particularly influential value upheld within this incoming market is sustainability.
According to a research paper discussing autonomous manufacturing’s endorsement of onshoring, “a critical factor driving onshoring manufacturing is the consuming behaviour of Gen Z”, considering that “the priorities of this generation of consumers have completely shifted. They care about sustainable products, social justice, and corporate responsibility. They care about where the products are being made.”
Autonomous manufacturing offers a labour-free alternative for factory floors, whilst also driving more sustainable operative habits, a goal towards which machine learning can offer improvements. Supporting the movement away from outsourcing, the technology also extends a means to cut down on polluting transportation.
Both in terms of upholding the everlasting qualities of successful business operations, and adapting to new priorities, onshored autonomous manufacturing could offer revolutionary ways to rekindle symbiotic relationships between businesses and customers.
New Era, New Path to Success
Paradigm shifts in the manufacturing sector have led some of the world’s most impactful social and industrial transformations, from the First Industrial Revolutions all the way through to the Fourth which we find ourselves submerged in today.
In 2023, the road has been laid for autonomous modes of manufacturing to play a comparably pivotal role. According to McKinsey, “annual investment in artificial intelligence (AI) has reached roughly $150 billion, and investors are pouring $250 billion into IoT technologies”; the rewards of such large investments will come to define the coming years.
As our contemporary sphere shifts, ensuring that businesses remain actively responsive is extremely important. Autonomous manufacturing is shaping up to provide a foundational solution to a whole host of different initiatives, from onshoring and beyond.
Enjoyed this? Check out our previous article, ‘How Will Digital Workers Replace 3 in 4 Jobs?’
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