Industry 4.0, or the Fourth Industrial Revolution, is upon us. There’s been talk of it coming and the lines have been blurry, but COVID-19 greatly accelerated a number of trends that are ushering a new era of manufacturing before our very eyes.

The repercussions of the pandemic will be felt throughout 2021 and for a long time afterward, but the most successful manufacturers are the ones who adapt and look ahead. They leverage change as an opportunity to become an organization that better serves the modern market. While there’s a lot going on in the sector, these manufacturing industry trends are the ones top leaders are focused on most.

Investing in Technology

While technology has been embedded in manufacturing for decades, the pace at which today’s innovations are being released has skyrocketed. This is due partly to COVID-19 forcing workers off factory floors and creating a bigger need for remote operation and management. Manufacturing Execution System (MES) software is one way businesses are striving to leverage the best technology of today to ensure a streamlined process. With the MES market set to be worth $15 billion by 2025, it’s clear that manufacturers are rapidly investing in this area.

But that’s far from the only tech initiative on manufacturers’ plates. AI and automation keep growing in the sector. While they equate to safer measures in an era of social distancing, they also improve efficiency in many ways. Artificial Intelligence may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but the reality is that AI is embedded in numerous other products and processes, enhancing them. Relying on AI doesn’t mean robots are controlling the entire manufacturing environment; it just means working smarter while optimizing several pieces of the puzzle.

On top of that, there are technologies like edge computing, 3D printing, and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to consider. The latter is of particular interest to manufacturers because internet-connected sensors throughout a shop floor can take operations to a whole new level. In fact, 31% of manufacturing production processes incorporate smart devices and embedded intelligence right now with many more planning to do so in the future. It’s why the IoT market keeps growing and is on pace to reach $110 billion in four years.

Rethinking Supply Chain Resilience

Every manufacturer either experienced or heard about the massive supply chain disruptions of 2020, but did every manufacturer take steps to guard against future disruptions? Not yet. Even though many areas of the industry are still seeing shortages of the products they rely on, only the most proactive manufacturers did something about it. Their actions are effectively a blueprint for the rest to follow.

According to Deloitte, 44% of executives plan to recalibrate their supply chain by shifting more toward a regional model in the next year. That’s because the closer a manufacturer is to the source of their ingredients, the less likely they are to experience delays or problems in getting those items. The Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) refers to this trend as an increase of localized production and near-sourcing.

Moving the supply chain closer, whether that means inside a manufacturer’s country, region, or state, will serve to help the related trend of increasing supplier visibility. Customers want to know what goes into the products they are purchasing. Some want to know the items they buy are environmentally sustainable because the components aren’t shipped long distances, while other customers desire to purchase products made by those in their local communities. Simply put, a supply chain that’s closer to home will make it easier for manufacturers to truthfully tell customers the information they want to hear.

Making Safety a Priority

The topic of safety in manufacturing cannot be understated. The AEM points out that it will be a major priority for manufacturers moving forward, but there’s more than meets the eye here. COVID-19 is the obvious spark. Businesses are still seeing restrictions, the CDC and OSHA update guidelines regularly, and there’s a worldwide focus on safety at the moment. Can manufacturers require employees to receive vaccines? Can employees refuse them? Some of these questions remain unanswered, but truly making safety a priority means more than just getting through the pandemic.

There are a number of ongoing considerations for ensuring employee safety in manufacturing environments that have nothing to do with COVID-19. How can you keep your employees alert when they’re using dangerous equipment? Do you have a response plan if an accident happens on your shop floor? And what does stellar safety training look like in practice? These are just some of the many questions manufacturers are asking themselves, and they will shape the future of the industry well after the coronavirus is a distant memory.

Pushing for More Diversity in Manufacturing

Historically, manufacturing is not a diverse industry. Women and minorities are underrepresented in the sector, and the events of 2020 made crystal clear that a lack of equality is not acceptable in any corner of the United States. In the fall, the National Association of Manufacturers approved a Pledge for Action with the goal of closing the opportunity gap. It sets strong goals for creating positive change in the field and breaks down a number of impactful action items that any manufacturer can adopt.

Ultimately, manufacturers can no longer use the same hiring practices from 20 years ago. It’s time to bring in people from different backgrounds, not because it’s good for a company’s image, but because doing so fosters fresh ideas and new perspectives in a business. At ATR, we’ve been pushing for greater diversity in many industries. Manufacturing is one of the harder ones to crack because of its longstanding stereotypes, but we know that the factories of decades ago are not today’s factories. Modern facilities are welcoming environments that treat manufacturing like the science that it is. Manufacturers are clinical in their attention to detail, and it’s time the same attention is put into hiring. After all, this is a great industry for anyone looking to build their career.

2021 Manufacturing Industry Trends

In the first few months of the pandemic, and perhaps even throughout 2020, it was understandable if a business failed to react or plan for the future. The priority was just making it through each day while looking even one week ahead felt unpredictable. But at this point in 2021, there’s no longer any excuse to continue old models of business. The best manufacturers in the game are leveraging every new idea they can, and if you can put strategy into the above trends, you can enjoy stronger, future-proofed operations.

Looking for manufacturing talent? Want performers who can make a real difference on your team? Reach out to ATR today.


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