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Smart Technologies Driving Manufacturing Innovation

The fourth industrial revolution has led to the creation of disruptive technologies and smart manufacturing disciplines that are continuing to spur manufacturing innovation. As digitized operations become the norm for the industry, manufacturers are working to ensure their strategies and processes meet expectations.

Eight smart technologies and disciplines are leading the way for digital transformation initiatives. Manufacturers must utilize these advancements if they hope to remain profitable in the future. Learn about how these eight disciplines are driving manufacturing innovation throughout the industrial sector.

Additive Manufacturing

Additive manufacturing (AM) is changing the way the manufacturing industry thinks about production. Though still used primarily for prototyping, this smart technology offers a multitude of production benefits

AM technologies such as 3D printing can print just about any shape, which gives manufacturers flexibility to design parts that perform better and cost less than their current products. Another benefit is the ability to customize products to better meet the needs of end users. Additionally, AM can replace toolmaking and fabricating operations to accelerate production. This reduces time to market for new products and allows for on-demand production of replacement parts.

As manufacturers realize the benefits of using AM technologies for production, the industry will move toward increased customization with improved products.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Computers develop intelligence through machine learning (ML), and then use artificial intelligence (AI) to think and perform like humans. Manufacturers can utilize these technologies to improve productivity and optimize operations. 

Sensors within production machines allow for real-time monitoring of performance and provide data that AI-enabled computers can analyze to implement improvements as needed. This helps avoid production downtime and bottlenecks. It also provides more accurate and effective machine maintenance timeliness with predictive maintenance capabilities.

AI and ML, like many of these eight disciplines, are also part of the basis for smart factories. Intertwining these smart manufacturing technologies can often lead to the most significant improvements. For example, machine learning and automation can intelligently automate routine tasks without human intervention, improving efficiency and reducing costs.

Smart technologies like AI, ML and automation are pushing the industry toward lights-out manufacturing, which is when factories operate with no human presence.  

Automation and Robotics

Manufacturers use robots in factories to perform routine, time-consuming and dangerous tasks. Unlike humans, robots can work without breaks and make fewer mistakes, which reduces waste and increases productivity. Implementing robots on production lines frees up human workers to perform more value-added tasks.

Whereas mechanical robots do physical tasks, automation focuses more on software robots, which are used for virtual tasks and processes. Automating virtual business processes can often lead to a significant return on investment for manufacturers due to time savings.

The higher up-front cost of robots and automation is why it has taken longer to implement them throughout the industry, but now the presence of these smart technologies is becoming an expectation.


Manufacturing innovation focuses a lot on adding digital technologies within operations. As digitization becomes the norm, the need to protect digital assets is a priority. Hence the rise of cybersecurity within manufacturing.

While manufacturers pursue smart initiatives, they need to have a robust cybersecurity plan in place to protect operational technologies. Cyber risks are here to stay, and manufacturers need to be able to efficiently and effectively identify when these attacks happen. 

Plans should include a response to cyberthreats as well as steps to recover and increase protection efforts to prevent similar attacks in the future. As manufacturing operations become more digital, manufacturers must include cybersecurity protections in digital transformation strategies. 

Data Analytics

Many smart technologies leverage data to improve production processes. Though data collection isn’t a new process for manufacturing, the way data is collected is changing. Automation and digitization allow for production, operational, and system data to be digitally collected and analyzed. This provides real-time data that is more accurate and actionable than manually collected data.

Manufacturers can use data analytics to optimize production. Some smart technologies use data analytics insights to make operational improvements as well as avoid potential issues, such as unexpected machine downtime, low inventory, and ineffective max capacity production limits. Technologies like AI require data to be effective, so data analytics should be a key part of any smart initiative. 

Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)

The Internet of Things (IoT) is all about digital connections. When you utilize this smart technology in manufacturing it is known as the industrial Internet of Things. IIoT leverages sensors on machines and machine tools to digitally connect operations. This allows for communication between production machines in the factory as well as with a central factory hub.

Like AI, ML and automation, implementing IIoT technologies is necessary to create a smart factory. Sensor technology collects and shares data within the factory, while ML and AI algorithms analyze the data and use it to enhance processes. The connections created by IIoT technologies make digital communications possible within manufacturing facilities.

Virtual Reality (VR) / Augmented Reality (AR) / Mixed Reality (MR)

VR, AR, and MR have introduced digitally interactive environments and components into personal and professional spaces. Within the manufacturing industry, these technologies could help accelerate product design, transform worker training, and improve product testing. Though some of these are future use cases, AR and VR are already used in other areas of manufacturing.

Some current use cases for these smart technologies include using AR-enabled devices to view product and equipment information on the factory floor. Another use case involves utilizing VR to create digital twins to monitor parts, equipment, or even entire plants in a virtual setting. 

Manufacturers can use both AR and VR to train and guide workers with relevant visuals and interactive situations. Plus, these virtual settings provide a safe place for employees to train. AR, VR, and MR are newer innovations within the industry, but this technology will prove to be beneficial for worker safety and operational efficiency.

Workforce Transformation

Digitally enabling the manufacturing workforce is a key part of digital transformation. Manufacturing innovation requires a highly skilled workforce, and workforce transformation is all about closing the skills gap. Manufacturers are using a few methods to upskill their workforce, including partnerships with educational institutions and manufacturing advancement organizations. 

These partnerships are helping to train workers in new skills needed for smart manufacturing. They also help generate interest in the manufacturing industry. Building a better pipeline from academia to manufacturing jobs is another strategy to achieve a highly skilled workforce. However, manufacturers should also look beyond colleges and universities.

On-the-job training programs can provide new workers with sufficient skills for certain in-demand positions, and current workers can attend workshops held by manufacturing organizations. Upskilling the manufacturing workforce in smart technologies will take time and resources, but is necessary for the continued advancement of the industry.

If you want to learn more about the smart technologies and disciplines driving manufacturing innovation, attend the Smart Manufacturing Experience. This advanced manufacturing event has different tracks for each of the eight smart disciplines, and is intended to help small- and medium-sized manufacturing companies on their digital transformation journeys.