Conversely, digital laggards continue to be at risk of global uncertainties, argues this telecommunications services vendor.

Manufacturing is a key pillar of regional economy, accounting for over a fifth of GDP in the East Asia and Pacific since 2004, according to data from the World Bank. IHS Markit manufacturing PMI survey data also highlights continued momentum in the industry in early 2021, which is expected to show robust expansion through the year.

However, ensuring sustained growth and momentum in manufacturing is not just about going ‘back to normal’. Integral to driving recovery is Industry 4.0, which will help manufacturers deliver products and services faster and better.

A joint study by Microsoft and IDC had predicted that in the Asia-Pacific region, digital transformation of the manufacturing industry could deliver an additional US$387bn to GDP by 2021 and help grow it by an extra 1% annually.

To realize these gains, manufacturers must deploy and integrate advanced information technology and operational technology across the entire manufacturing process, instead of working in silos. 

For most manufacturing organizations, end-to-end transformation may seem daunting. However, this very transformation will be the crux of enabling manufacturers to compete effectively, especially in light of the pandemic.

Getting ‘future ready’ proactively

The COVID-19 pandemic, while unprecedented, is unlikely to be the only crisis businesses will face in their lifetime. Recognizing the key role of technology in their survival, industries that had not embraced technology now wish to move swiftly into digitalization. This is reflected in the findings of Vodafone Business’ latest research around business sentiment in the region. 

The same research also shows that ‘future ready’ businesses, i.e., companies that are confident and well-prepared for emerging trends, challenges and possibilities, are dealing with the disruption head-on, simply by being more open to change and investing more in technology. In fact, 80% of ‘future ready’ businesses in Singapore believed that their technological investments can help their organization conquer business challenges.

This is a key takeaway for the manufacturers, a traditional industry often bogged down by legacy architecture and equipment.

Factories of the 5G future

Today’s manufacturing industry is a complex beast. Consumer demands change at increasing speed and have become ever more varied. As a result, production lines need to be retooled at record speeds to take advantage of market trends.

Envision the ‘Factory of the Future’—where lean production lines are able to reorganize in real-time to take account of inventory control. Smart machines talk and cooperate with each other, enabling mass customization and the adjustment of production planning based on real demand.

These may sound like scenes from a science fiction film, but are essentially interconnected systems that are able to communicate with one another, and adapt their output based on available data.

5G will be critical to this vision. Singapore has already taken its first steps with its 5G smart-manufacturing trial. By providing the unified communication platform needed for near-instantaneous connectivity between devices and networks, 5G allows manufacturers to achieve higher flexibility, lower cost, and shorter lead times for factory floor production reconfiguration, layout changes, and alterations to their current processes.

For instance, Ford uses 5G connectivity for their welding machines during its manufacturing of electric vehicles. Building one engine for one vehicle requires over 1,000 individual welds, generating more than half a million pieces of data per minute. It is crucial for Ford to analyze the data in real time to check for any adjustments required quickly.

IoT also has a role

5G will also stimulate Internet of Things (IoT) adoption at an unprecedented scale, allowing for further process optimization. IoT takes the Factory of the Future a step further by providing visibility on every production stage. Manufacturers can collect critical production data and use cloud software to turn this data into valuable insights about the efficiency of the manufacturing operations.

One example is ‘digital twinning’ which allows businesses to create a virtual model of the physical process to monitor, analyze and improve their performance in real-time. On a product-level, this means the ability to design, develop and test multiple prototypes, all without producing a single physical asset. This helps manufacturers save money, reduce waste and get products to market faster.

The technology can also be expanded to encompass a digital twin of the entire factory floor, which allows businesses to survey, analyze and optimize operations. In the context of the pandemic, this also allows companies to identify areas where physical operations need to be redesigned to allow for safe distancing in the workplace.

In remote areas, leveraging IoT and connected platforms is a boon to small manufacturers. For instance, in rural African regions, IoT is already helping small local flour mills tackle malnutrition by fortifying flour with precise amounts of key nutrients during the milling process. Here, IoT allows access to up-to-the-minute information on maintenance, power supply and machine performance via GPS.

Data, from nutrient ratios to weight readings, is transmitted every five minutes transforming the operators’ reach, operational efficiency and effectiveness in each mill. With increased productivity from IoT, even small manufacturers stand to improve their bottom line.

Tackling the uncertain future with Industry 4.0

It is no doubt a tough time for manufacturers right now. A confluence of threats can put many companies out of business, but now is not the time for business leaders to put their hands up and wait in hope of a return to ‘normalcy’.

As many experts have pointed out, the path ahead will not look like what was behind us. Consumer preferences, supply chain dynamics and shop floor operations will see irreversible change in the days ahead.

From here, it is up to manufacturers to leverage the Factory of the Future with 5G and IoT. By working and capitalizing on all that the latest technologies have to offer across the entire production value chain, manufacturers will be better equipped to deal with the disruptions ahead of them.