Certain growth, tempered with uncertainty

June 14, 2022

Gerry Abbey, product marketing manager, Plex Systems, who fronted a 60-person team in the creation of the company's latest State of Smart Manufacturing Report, shared key findings from the report during a presentation at this week’s ROKLive event in Orlando, Fla.

The good news: Plex Systems’ latest State of Smart Manufacturing Report reveals a 50% growth in the adoption of smart manufacturing technologies in the past year. That continues a trend—snowballs it, really—that this annual report has chronicled for the past seven years. It’s a huge jump in adoption, one that validates the efforts of solution providers such as Plex and Rockwell Automation, and echoes the messaging that many of us have been shouting from the rooftops. “This stuff works!”

The bad news: all of these new tools, while enabling unprecedented gains, are creating “technology paralysis—an inability to choose the right technology to fit the business needs.” That was reported as a top ten growth obstacle by the 321 global manufacturers who completed the recent survey that informed this report. 

“This is the first time we asked about technology paralysis in the survey,” said Gerry Abbey, product marketing manager, Plex Systems, who fronted a 60-person team in the creation of this report and shared key findings from it during a presentation at this week’s ROKLive event in Orlando, Fla. While there used to be just a few software and hardware providers, he added, now there are myriad. “When someone is moving toward digital transformation and the technology they need to adopt, there are so many that they might have trouble making a decision.”

One solution Abbey suggested is empowering teams of leaders from throughout the manufacturing enterprise to make collectively informed decisions about digital-transformation strategies. Formal processes are required, of course, but he also stressed the value of watercooler discussions (even “virtual watercooler discussions” in this remote age) where stakeholders within enterprises can hash out needs and concerns and opportunities before commitment to digitalization courses of action.

Naturally, even the best-laid plans are subject to the rigors of the modern industrial arena. Abbey referenced different segments of the report to call out ongoing challenges that survey respondents—all of us, actually—just can’t seem to shake:

  • The difficulty in—and value of—connecting disparate Industry 4.0 technologies such as cloud computing, automation efforts and wireless capabilities.
  • Labor shortages caused by retiring skilled labor and a reluctance to enter the manufacturing field among young workers. “It is here. It may be here to stay. It may increase,” said the presenter.
  • How malware attackers are increasingly focusing on manufacturing, having found those business owners to be quick to pay ransoms because they are so reliant on business continuity. 52% of respondents are not managing cybersecurity and 61% do not have a risk-mitigation plan in place. “These numbers are very concerning,” said Abbey. “To not have a plan in place, considering all we have seen in recent years?”
  • Supply chain disruptions. While many have completed supply chain planning solutions, all processes are often not connected, limiting the ability to respond to issues in real time. “Supply chain disruptions are nuanced and changing. This is an ever-present challenge.”

On the flipside, the State of Smart Manufacturing Report spotlights encouraging developments among respondents:

  • Increasingly modular smart-manufacturing software systems are enabling more enterprises to start small and launch production-monitoring programs in a matter of days. “You can then build payback, get ROI and scale quickly,” explained Abbey.
  • Another first for this report was the inclusion of ESG topics. Survey-takers were asked about their commitment to environmental, social and governance initiatives, as these topics are rapidly evolving from obligations to desirable value drivers. As manufacturers struggle to attract talent, for example, a public commitment to sustainability, equitable practices and compliance is a proven method to pique interest in youngsters who now expect this of their employers. The proof—97% of survey respondents noted that they have a formal or informal ESG policy in place. “There are many reasons companies push ESG—business reasons and human reasons,” explained the product marketing manager. “ESG can be a true competitive differentiator.”
  • Among six technologies that can most help with modern digitalization campaigns in the report, Abbey focused on evolving artificial-intelligence and machine-learning solutions. “The business cases that are being built with AI and machine learning can fill in gaps in operations,” he said. “These are key tools to this conversation.”
  • The emergence of connected supply chains—customers, suppliers, plants and distribution centers working together. “Once you have in place that closed loop, you have more inputs that provide you greater forecasting accuracy. You can better communicate with your suppliers. You achieve more effective growth.”
  • The ample methods to mitigate cyber-risk—key among them is a multi-tenant cloud software-as-a-service approach that enables users to rely on software, hardware and security support teams. “This frees up your IT department so they can add business value elsewhere; they become more than data-analysts. We offer a whole company devoted to this; teams of software and security professionals and CSOs looking out for your best interests.”

In the last seven years of creating these reports, the Plex team had witnessed incremental commitment to digital transformation among manufacturers. In the last year, incremental growth became monumental. And Abbey and the dozens of peers with whom he created this report foresee this trend continuing. “The barriers to adoption are falling, and that is enabling change. Think about your own situations,” he said before informally polling the room about their own commitment to smart initiatives.

Most hands in the room shot skyward…more technology enthusiasm evident than any paralysis.

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