Opportunities and risks in manufacturing technology

Supercharged by rapid progress in AI and the increased use of advanced control systems driving greater efficiency, productivity, and quality, automation and industrial robotics continue to transform manufacturing. Yet the sector faces tech-related threats including heightened cybersecurity risks, overspending on technology with poor ROI, and a workforce increasingly concerned about job security in a highly automated environment.

Ahead of the Women in Manufacturing Summit 2024, Quest Events spoke with Jayne Glasson, Head of Research & Development at Tegel Foods, and Genevieve Reid, Director of Business Development and Industry Engagement at Swinburne University of Technology, to learn more.

What are the most exciting opportunities emerging in manufacturing tech?

Glasson sees great potential in technology that enables efficiencies and flexibility no matter whether the product is a best-seller or something with lower volume production runs, for example, technology enabling quick change overs and data informed decision making, “This is key in small markets such as New Zealand”, she says. “With sustainability being forefront of consumer minds at the moment the use of technology, in particular AI, to fully understand, measure and report on sustainability initiatives within your business is also essential.”

“AI would top the list for me”, says Reid. “Manufacturing can leverage AI’s ability to manage data-intensive systems for more mature businesses, develop insights in real time from big data to enable predictive analytics, improve process consistency, product quality and equipment reliability by being able to predict failures and give time to respond before equipment breaks down. In terms of employee efficiency, office workers (working on business processes within manufacturing) waste a significant of productive time in searching for information. Gen AI is helping quicken search processes and data collation”, she adds.

What are the evolving risks in manufacturing tech?

Glasson points to the heightened threat and massive impact of cyberattacks in manufacturing environments where computers are increasingly managing factory operations. “In the past, products were manufactured using paper specifications with employees manually turning machines on and off. But in a fully computerised environment, you can’t run your production lines in the event of an attack and that can have catastrophic consequences for a business.” A well-known example of this is what happened to Lion in 2020, when the Sodinokibi ransomware attack forced the shutdown of its systems for almost an entire month.

“Cybersecurity is the key threat”, agrees Reid. “Businesses are capturing personal employee information – face scans, biometrics, and performance info – all of which increases the number of possible targets for cybercriminals. Other business risks include expensive technology investments becoming obsolete in a short timeframe, or a manufacturer becoming tied up with a particular platform or service provider and being unable to integrate with other software.”

Reid says these threats can be mitigated by taking a “Team of Teams” approach, looking for potential collaboration and partnerships with experts. “Gather knowledge about these risks, be aware, and engage nationally and internationally through industry associations and university networks.”

What are the key hurdles stopping manufacturers from maximising technology ROI?

“It’s about mindset”, says Glasson. “Manufacturers hold themselves back by underestimating the potential of technology and how it can be utilised. Often the full capabilities of new technologies are not realised until they are implemented and explored.   Sometimes we just don’t think big enough so encouraging a mindset that embraces innovation and is open to experimenting with new technologies can unlock opportunities.  If you want to fully capitalise on the ROI of new technologies, you need to be brave! 

Reid believes some manufacturers suffer from a techno-centric rather than a business-centric view. “Tech investment needs to be outcome-focused and aligned to strategy”, she advises. “Other hurdles include poor articulation of pain-points hampering the development of ROI, along with a lack of holistic assessment and prioritisation of manufacturers’ needs.”

How can decision-makers avoid overspending on manufacturing technology for little benefit?

“Focus on real business problems and try to quantify the pain in dollar terms”, says Reid. “Explore low-cost or no-cost solutions first before going down the technology route. Avoid overspending by deploying proof of concepts and running pilots with clearly defined success criteria. If the criteria are met, only then should we develop ROI and scale.”

Reid adds that manufacturers should involve all relevant stakeholders when developing functional specifications to avoid having to make (expensive) changes later. “Finally, be sure to develop a Digital strategy and align all technology investments to that strategy.”

Similarly, Glasson advises manufacturers to have a clear ambition for the project and understand what is in and out of scope. “Do the research before pressing ‘go’. Ask your suppliers to give you technology you can test before implementation, and be sure to visit other manufacturers who are already doing something similar.
Whether it is an innovation project or an implementation of new technology, you need to define, design, test and implement with a design-led thinking mindset where you engage your customers and employees right through the process. This will ultimately lead to a great outcome.”

How can manufacturing leaders help manage employee anxiety about AI and automation changing the workforce?

Reid recommends using change management frameworks to involve people in the change. “Identify and develop Industry 4.0 change champions within the business who can help change the conversation from human ‘or’ AI to human ‘and’ AI; for example by promoting the concept of Human in the Loop. We need to upskill the workforce with relevant skills to be able to manage automation and set an example of humans being moved to a higher value-added task”, she adds.

“Effective communication is essential!” urges Glasson. “Employees get nervous because they think AI is going to take their job, but in reality AI is more likely to take over the repetitive and mundane tasks.  This can provide employees with the opportunity to engage in more meaningful and fulfilling roles.  By clearly explaining how AI and automation can enhance their work rather that replace them, leaders can alleviate anxiety and highlight the potential for personal and professional growth.

Hear more from Jayne Glasson and Genevieve Reid and a host of other industry leaders at the Women in Manufacturing Summit 2024, 20-22 August at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. Learn more.

To access the detailed conference program, download the brochure here.