How the West is won back

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Manufacturing & Logistics IT spoke with Matt Parker, head of market development, Zebra Technologies Europe, about how a number of current and bourgeoning technologies provide Western manufacturers with a golden opportunity to return to their former glory days.

A recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute, 'Manufacturing the future: The next era of global growth and innovation', highlights that despite the turmoil that has beset many global economies over the past few years, manufacturing continues to grow worldwide – now accounting for approximately 16 per cent of global GDP and 14 per cent of employment. The report also states that by 2025 a new global consuming class will have emerged, and the majority of consumption will take place in developing economies, creating rich new market opportunities. In established markets, meanwhile, the report observes that demand is fragmenting as customers want greater variation and more types of aftersales service. The report also comments that innovations in materials and processes—from nanomaterials to 3-D printing to advanced robotics – also promise to create fresh demand and drive further productivity gains across manufacturing industries and geographies.

Zebra's Matt Parker believes new technologies such as these are just the tools needed to boost Western manufacturers' competitiveness on the world stage – facilitating production closer to home, ensuring greater visibility and traceability throughout the supply chain, and also ensuring a closer, more mutually beneficial relationship with suppliers and consumers.

Primary driver

Parker comments that manufacturing is, and will continue to be, the primary driver of GDP globally. And although there has been a major shift away from traditional core western manufacturing economies, he believes we are going to see that pendulum start to swing back as new technologies allow organisations to bring back in-house some of the core skills and competencies that they had moved to other geographies, such as the Far East, over the past few years. "3-D printing is one example of this," says Parker. "If we look at prototype construction there's no need to offshore that anymore; 3D printers continue to grow in their competence and ability, and I believe we're not for away from seeing 3-D printers being able to embed and include electronics. Indeed, there are already 3-D printers in operation today that can overlay products with gold leaf and gold-plate metals. So the technology and what it can bring forward – not just 3-D printing but other High-Tech production technologies too – will help bring back a number of processes and procedures away from offshore/third party production."

Parker also maintains that the information revolution will play an increasingly prevalent role in the growth of manufacturing strength returning to the West. "We hear a lot about Big Data, and if utilised effectively, this has the potential to transform industry," he said. "There is a huge amount of information that manufacturers and retailers are now able to gather from consumers who are spontaneously creating information through mobility and social media platforms. This can tell manufacturers a lot about customers' purchasing dynamic and behaviour patterns. Equally, machine to machine interactions give us a new insight into previously invisible or disconnected processes and procedures. By harnessing this data manufacturers in all industry subsectors can make better design, production and volume decisions, which in turn create value."

"If we look at some of the leading automotive manufacturers in the UK much of their upstream supply chain is locally based, whereas as recently as three or four years ago most of it would have been offshore," he said. "There has been a desire to bring that back because it allows greater ownership and flexibility within the production process. It also allows greater transparency within the supply chain because the core manufacturer is better able to control and mandate what components are used, in what quantities, within what timescales etc. This process is made much more effective because production is taking place on the manufacturer's doorstep and not thousands of miles away. Taking all of this into consideration, if analytics based on real-time spontaneous data suggest a bottleneck is likely, upstream and downstream interactions can be adjusted and modified to maximise efficiency and create a more seamless experience. Having the supply chain on the doorstep means that decisions based on real time data can be implemented far more quickly."

In terms of High-Tech innovations such as 3-D printing, Parker believes we will see some major technological leaps over the next few years, pushing the manufacturing envelope ever further. "We are already significantly more advanced than we were only a year to 18 months ago, so something major has already begun; something that I believe is going to be a game changer for the manufacturing sector," he said.

Improved visibility

And what of advances in the world of data capture? Parker points out that relatively recent developments in Auto ID are empowering manufacturers, allowing them to make more informed business and operational decisions. "This all hinges on Auto ID being able to connect what previously had been very disparate processes, sometimes involving distant locations," said Parker. "If we look at the steel manufacturing sector, for example, base components are made at one facility, and are then shipped to another area where they are hot- or cold-rolled. A lot of activity happens during that transitionary period between shipment from one site to another. Being able to fully interrogate, gather and extract information related to the whole process involves also being able to see what's happening during this transitionary stage which, before recent developments in data capture technology, had been largely invisible. Auto ID, passive and active RFID, right the way up to GPS, gives organisations this level of visibility. It's giving otherwise inanimate objects a digital voice, and this is the value that companies such as Zebra bring to the table."

According to Parker, the other technological leap we will see happening very quickly, and which is already starting to be deployed, is that of Machine Vision. "Where there are the constants of barcode technology, together with and passive and active RFID technology, the platform on which all of this is built – the Machine Vision element – is a natural step on from that," explained Parker. "This technology facilitates more interaction between devices and objects without human intervention. Of course, certain manufacturing sectors are further down the deployment path than others. In High-Tech manufacturing there is already very little human intervention, but Machine Vision can even benefit labour-intensive manufacturing processes where there will always be a need for a skilled and highly specialised workforce. So this not about the elimination of the workforce; rather, it again focuses on harnessing data more effectively and getting visibility into the previously invisible areas of operations and processes."

Parker added that Zebra's platform is the constant on which everything else is constructed. "We are the gateway to information, ensuring all this information – including the information captured in those transitionary points mentioned earlier – can be carried up into a centralised ERP system or decision-making system to allow for actionable analytics to take place. And through such analytics companies will be able to improve their overall operations. For example, it could allow them to engage much more keenly with their upstream and downstream supply chain partners. It could even point to potential improvements in terms of their manufacturing layouts."

And because users are able to make decisions in real time, Parker points out that this can also enhance relationships with customers and suppliers. "For instance, through Auto ID and through Machine Vision a company might detect an existing or potential delay or bottleneck in the process. Rather than jeopardise your business relationship with partners or customers, you can inform them in advance and reset their expectation. In this way you can keep their experience positive by ensuring they are fully informed as to the progress of a particular order. And this has never been more important in an age where the consumer can drive the value of the brand through their ability to create information spontaneously within the social media sphere."

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