Manufacturing companies continuously seek improvements that will streamline operations, remove inefficiencies, protect operations and deliveries, and surpass user expectations. More often than not, improvements are driven by the adoption and support of technology.

Here’s a look at the top five technology trends in manufacturing this year.

1. Network assurance utilizing AI technology to ensure business continuity.

Most manufacturing technologies depend on a Wi-Fi network. Even devices that connect to the wired network can still use Wi-Fi for software updates or to provide performance analytics to vendors and IT professionals. This means that an unreliable network has an earthquake effect that stretches throughout an entire organization. If the network doesn’t work as needed, no connected devices will work as needed either. Business continuity will not happen.

The solution is securing network assurance utilizing AI technology. There are a number of AI-powered network automation and Wi-Fi automation solutions on the market. Those providing network automation optimize both the wired and Wi-Fi networks; Wi-Fi automation solutions focus on the Wi-Fi.

These solutions provide automatic, proactive insights into all network activity. They identify any issues; alert IT in real time; and, often, provide actionable resolutions. They can be used to continuously test the wired and Wi-Fi networks and provide remote troubleshooting. They’re designed to significantly reduce the mean time to resolution (MTTR), and provide future-proofed optimization so that networks remain reliable for longer.

In manufacturing organizations, where networks consist of hundreds or thousands of connected devices, IT departments need AI technology to keep an eye on every single device, application, and data packet that travels through the network every second. Identifying performance and behavior issues in real time is the only way to ensure business continuity and user satisfaction. It’s this visibility that makes reliable, optimal performance possible, and it’s this visibility that is only possible with the support of an automated solution that never rests and uses AI technology to learn to recognize normal and abnormal network behavior.

Manufacturing organizations that want to simplify their network optimization will turn to AI-powered network assurance solutions in 2024.

2. The increase of IIoT devices and data digitization for improving operational efficiencies.

The IIoT refers to sensors, machines, and smart devices used to automate and monitor business processes across manufacturing facilities. Organizations that implement them create a network of interconnected technologies that communicate with one another and work together. As opposed to IoT devices, IIoT devices are only used in industrial settings, such as manufacturing, utilities, oil and gas, agriculture, etc. They collect, analyze, and share data about the machines they are connected to, external influences, and real-world situations in order to create more intelligent and efficient systems.

A few examples of the types of tasks performed by these devices include automating assembly lines, managing fleets, real-time inventory tracking, predicting market fluctuations and potential issues, identifying potential and existing issues in manufacturing and business processes, alerting professionals to degrading machine performance, and alerting teams to cybersecurity and physical security risks.

The data provided by these devices gives utilizing companies a competitive advantage. Data is delivered faster, more often, and at scale. When the right IIoT device is selected, its adoption should lead to improved operational efficiencies, such as enhanced productivity, shorter time to market, fewer manufacturing and business errors, better predictive maintenance, improved safety, and reduced costs. While that’s enough to recommend them, IIoT devices will continue to evolve to provide better support, such as using Wi-Fi 6E or 5G connectivity.

Devices that deliver analytics — useful information, not merely more data — will be the top of the line.

3. Virtual reality for the training and modeling of systems.

Virtual reality (VR) technology is fairly new to manufacturing environments. Throughout 2024, I expect to see more of these technologies used in a variety of ways.

  • Product designers and engineers can use VR to design new products. The smallest details can be tested and examined before physical prototypes are created. 
  • Plant layouts can be tested using VR before construction or modifications take place. 
  • VR can be used to make a digital twin of an assembly line, at which point different configurations can be tested to reduce bottlenecks or other inefficiencies.
  • HR teams can turn to virtual reality for immersive, more engaged, on-the-job training.
  • Virtual scenarios can be played out for different troubleshooting or security issues.

Greater adoption will be dependent on more case studies showing marked improvements as well as a decrease in price — although that isn’t expected to happen quickly. These technologies can be adopted slowly though. Companies can start by first identifying a specific need that can be solved by VR. Then perform a cost-benefit analysis of different solutions on the market. How expensive is the tool? Does it require extensive training? If it works as promised, how will it reduce costs long-term? Once the best technology is identified, it can be adopted and tested. 

Some organizations may find they only need VR in one or two departments. Others may eventually transform every process with VR.

4. The continued push for cloud services to reduce operating expenses and support growth at scale.

There are many different types of cloud services available, and I predict more and more companies will move to cloud-centered networks as an alternative option to on-premises solutions. A few applications manufacturers can implement include cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP), cloud-based quality management, cloud-based product lifecycle management (PLM), and cloud-based supply chain management (SCM).

Cloud computing is attractive because it brings with it:

  • Reduced operating expenses — cloud solutions mean a reduced on-premises footprint for hardware and software. While some infrastructure is still necessary, companies that move to the cloud see fewer costs associated with installations and maintenance.
  • Scalability — if companies choose to use an “as a service” solution, the solution will scale with their business model. Whether bandwidth needs and increase or decrease, cloud computing is flexible — and so are costs.
  • Easier collaboration — data stored in the cloud can be easily accessed by employees or other stakeholders at any location. With companies utilizing more data, thanks to IIoT devices, the enhanced storage capacity and shareability offered by the cloud will drive up adoption rates.

5. the increase of automation via robots and other solutions for offsetting labor challenges and scaling efficiency.

Manufacturers facing labor challenges, higher demands, and rising costs will turn increasingly to automation to help offset these difficulties and scale efficiently. The more that mundane, repetitive, or dangerous tasks can be shifted to automation solutions, the less companies will feel the effect of transitioning employees, and the more employees can move into skilled roles. By helping individuals grow and learn new skills, and by providing safer, more efficient work environments, companies can also improve retention rates.

Robots, such as automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), are already in use, but we will see them used in greater numbers. Additionally, manufacturers could start using them outside of warehouses, integrating them into other departments as functionalities develop. AGVs and AMRs are useful in navigating tight spaces and/or environments that are more dangerous, such as when toxic chemicals or dangerous machinery are present. Cobots — collaborative robots that work alongside humans — will become more capable with the evolution of technologies, such as 4D vision and mission-based robotics.

Another automation trend that will grow in 2024 is do-it-yourself (DIY) automation. This technology has made automation more accessible for smaller businesses. Combined with the growth of AI and IIoT, DIY automation will bring the latest opportunities to manufacturing companies of all sizes.

Finally, the growth of hyperautomation, or automation boosted by AI, machine learning, and robotic process automation, is expected. This technology can be used in any department. I’ll call out customer service as a prime target as organizations look for ways to meet increasingly high expectations in the midst of challenging conditions. Hyperautomation in customer service that successfully offers responsive, relevant, and tailored services will help companies protect their reputations.

Navigating manufacturing tech in 2024

Each of these predicted trends has the potential to improve manufacturing operations so businesses grow exponentially in 2024. The technologies are often intertwined and need to be implemented with consideration as to how they will affect one another, users, and existing technology already in place. There might be only one on the list that speaks to your unique goals and needs. You might already have plans to implement all five. Whatever your situation, make sure the technology works for you so that you end 2024 on a high note.