Smart manufacturing: 5 industry predictions for 2021

Flexibility, resilience, and innovation will dominate the manufacturing world in its 2021 recovery from COVID-19, Forrester says.

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As part of its larger 2021 predictions guide, Forrester has released a list of five trends it believes will drive the smart manufacturing industry in the year to come. The COVID-19 pandemic led to a difficult year for manufacturing businesses in 2020, but those difficulties led to remarkable innovations and adaptations that Forrester said are likely to stick around in 2021.

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"Behind the scenes, processes designed over years to ossify cost control, efficiency, and predictability were replaced by those that emphasized flexibility and resilience. As they plan for 2021 manufacturers will learn the lessons of 2020, doubling down on technology enabled strategies to deliver flexibility, resilience, and innovation," Forrester said in its smart manufacturing report.

According to Forrester, these are the five trends smart manufacturing companies should be prepared for in 2021.

1. COVID-19-driven adaptations will bring emerging tech to the forefront

There were several instances of emerging technologies being forced to take center stage thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, and Forrester said those changes will become the new normal for manufacturing leaders in 2021.

SEE: Coronavirus having major effect on tech industry beyond supply chain delays (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Examples cited by Forrester include rapid 3D printing of protective equipment, augmented reality (AR) headsets used to reduce time doctors spent with high-risk COVID-19 patients and reskill machinists to build ventilators, and remote support used to help engineers guide customers through remote maintenance tasks. "The need for a rapid response to the pandemic removed obstacles to adoption. In 2021, executives will try to make these quick fixes stick," Forrester said.

2. Supply chains will become collaborative networks

This prediction extends through 2021 and into 2022, by which time Forrester believes supply chains will have become more resilient by manufacturers pooling data, businesses investing in logistics operation centers, the rise of industry marketplaces, and the proliferation of supplier trust networks.

SEE: Inside UPS: The logistics company's never-ending digital transformation (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The supply-chain interruptions experienced during the early days of COVID-19 mean resiliency will be more important than ever before. "Manufacturing leaders must learn to federate data and distribute trust to collaborate with customers and suppliers in multi enterprise supply networks," Forrester said.

3. Sourcing provenance and data transparency will be necessary to protect brands

This trend isn't new, but Forrester predicts it will become more important in the next year. "Fair trade, labor conditions, or sustainability across categories like food, pharmaceuticals, or clothing all caught customers' attention and have become vital elements of manufacturers' brand value. In 2021, growing concerns around security and safety, the rise of localization, and nationalist sentiment will extend this trend to core manufacturing sectors," Forrester predicts.

This will include the need for manufacturers to track the inputs of the materials, components, and data they use and the transparent sharing of it to customers, which can put businesses in a tricky position. "Manufacturers must manage this flow of data and prevent its misuse while ensuring customers get the ethical transparency they demand," Forrester said.

4. Organizations will invest heavily in knowledge workers

Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation will continue to play a key part in the manufacturing world, Forrester said, which means knowledge workers with tech skills will be in high demand. 

SEE: Indeed: The "fastest-rising" jobs in tech (TechRepublic)

"In 2021, leading manufacturers will define a clear manufacturing process data strategy and aggressively invest in technologies such as unstructured content analytics, digital worker analytics, knowledge management solutions, industrial knowledge graphs, and reinforcement learning to enhance skills and encourage continuous learning, scaling industrial good practice, and fostering more innovation," Forrester predicts. 

To make matters better (for those looking for those jobs), there's a global shortage of the workers needed to make those new technologies a reality for manufacturing companies.

5. Resiliency strategies will replace disaster recovery plans

Disaster recovery is a key part of any business strategy, but it only looks at the short term. COVID-19 upended many disaster recovery plans, which Forrester predicts will mean the growth of long-term resilience as a strategy that supplants disaster recovery. 

SEE: Disaster recovery and business continuity plan (TechRepublic Premium)

Forrester predicts that 20% of businesses will replace disaster recovery with resilience strategies in 2021, and a major part of that will be a shift to the ability to run and manage production floors remotely. That process, in turn, will require significant investments in new smart manufacturing equipment and networking technology, which will create more long-term projects and investment. 

"Manufacturing leaders cannot do it all at once and should prioritize their efforts. Identify the workflows most important to long-term business resilience and equip those for remote operation," Forrester said.

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