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Gwen Chen
 |  September 12, 2017

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Automation and digitization have transformed manufacturing, opening the door for small manufacturers, as well as big players, to improve processes, increase efficiency and drive profits. The fact is, we are very much in the middle of what people are calling the third industrial revolution—Digital Manufacturing. Here’s a look at some of the industry trends.

Smarter production lines

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is a way to connect products, materials and machines into one network that can be monitored and analyzed with relative ease.

On production lines, this is accomplished with sensors detecting and recording the volume of raw materials coming in, as well as the subsequent manufactured products moving through the facilities. Digitizing the flow of products gives a precise overview of what materials are used and the time it takes in the production process, and can give managers insight into where they can cut costs and anticipate future needs. Ultimately, IIoT-enabled equipment offers precision and allows for a smarter way of doing business.

For an example of just how smart a manufacturing facility can be, look at General Electric’s Brilliant Factory. The factory is a model of how software can be integrated with machines in a way that redefines the manufacturing process.

Improved distribution and inventory management

Known for quickly making inexpensive replicas of the latest high-end fashion trends and styles, the fashion giant Zara utilizes digital technology to hone in on consumer preferences.

One way they do this is by attaching a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag to each item of clothing sent to their retail stores. With the RFID tag attached, employees simply wave a small computer in front of the rack, and presto, it records the style, size and quantity of all the clothing on the rack. The ability to get frequent, real-time inventory updates allows the manufacturing facilities to respond to consumer needs. This cuts costs as they are able to ship more of the clothes that are selling and fewer of the underperformers.

The technology continues to evolve. Currently, RFID has been used to carry expanded sets of data that can be used with statistical forecasting and can be plugged into algorithms that more accurately predict retail inventory and future demand.

A three-dimensional way to manage suppliers

Large or small, supply-chain operators are constantly struggling with how to manage multiple suppliers to manufacture a single product. On the extremely complicated side of this is the aerospace industry. More than a decade ago, Boeing was a pioneer in a manufacturing strategy known as virtual rollout. Using 3-D models of its 787 Dreamliners, Boeing was able to make a virtual simulation of the entire manufacturing process. This included all the parts to be sourced from various vendors. The result was better communication between engineers and manufactures that led to a reduction in the time it took for the product to reach market.

Today, cloud-based solutions allow suppliers and manufacturers to communicate quickly and have access to virtual design plans that make communicating and collaborating more timely and efficient. And it's not just limited to big players like Boeing.

Though smaller in scale, similar 3D modeling technology is widely available for small- to mid-sized manufacturers to model prototypes, give precise measurements and network with suppliers.

There is a mind-boggling number of possibilities that go along with the digital transformation of manufacturing. Leveraging the power of available technology will ultimately make a company more competitive and more efficient.

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Gwen Chen

Gwen is a marketer with AppSheet. Prior to AppSheet, she was a digital marketer, a journalist and editor, a translator, and a college teacher. She has a master with Duke University in Environmental Science and an MBA with University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

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