As we kick off the new year, the manufacturing industry stands on the precipice of significant transformation. The rapidly evolving technological landscape, compounded by ever-changing market dynamics, is not just temporarily forcing manufacturers to adjust but is redefining many of the longstanding assumptions in the sector. It's a time of innovation, uncertainty, and opportunity. In our recent webinar, "Next-Gen Manufacturing: Trends and Predictions for 2024," we took a closer look at the forces that are set to shape the future of manufacturing in 2024 and beyond.

The ability to adapt and evolve in the face of these changes isn't just a competitive advantage; it's essential for survival and growth in an increasingly dynamic global market. As we head into the new year, here are five key predictions for how frontline operations will evolve — and tips on how to adapt your strategy accordingly. From the declining relevance of manufacturing execution systems (MES) to the potential of generative AI to serve as a copilot to the frontline worker, the latest industry trends underscore a future where flexibility, innovation, and human ingenuity take center stage.

1. MES Will Become an Increasingly Less Relevant Category

Traditionally, MES solutions have been essential in managing and monitoring factory floor operations, but the relevance of this category is gradually waning. This trend is primarily due to the rigid, one-size-fits-all nature of traditional monolithic MES solutions, which are increasingly seen as a hindrance in today's complex and constantly adjusting manufacturing environments.

The industry is shifting towards more flexible and composable systems that can adapt to the specifics of any production process, rather than forcing manufacturers to make their process conform to the limitations of their MES. According to Gartner, “by 2025, at least 25% of manufacturing operations applications will use a composable technology architecture, up from less than 2% in 2022.” This represents a significant shift, where agile production systems enable manufacturers to respond rapidly to changing production demands.

2. Digital Architectures Will Be Built on Open Ecosystems

The shift towards open, interoperable digital architectures marks a significant departure from the era of proprietary, closed systems that once dominated the manufacturing industry. The move to open ecosystems is driven by the need for flexibility, scalability, and the ability to integrate best-in-class solutions from various vendors.

The foundation of these ecosystems are open protocols like REST and MQTT, whose ubiquity ensures interoperability and significantly streamlines the process of integrating new components into your solution. This also decreases the risk of vendor lock-in, since existing components can be readily replaced with any alternative that supports the open protocols.

Infographic showing the architecture of an open ecosystem, with a variety of machines, equipment, and enterprise systems all connecting to a frontline operations platform through open protocols.

3. Generative AI Will Empower Workers to Do Their Jobs Better

The potential of generative AI to be a game-changer in the manufacturing sector is becoming increasingly evident. Gen AI acts as a catalyst for democratization by leveling the playing field and enabling workers at all levels to do their jobs better, smarter, and faster through the use of intuitive, natural language.

For example, AI tools can be used to interpret data and create analytics using natural language, giving users access to valuable insights without needing specialized data science skills. Or, frontline operators can use natural language to interact with the systems they use every day and get help diagnosing, searching, or learning to overcome challenges they face.

As generative AI tools become more tightly integrated into shop floor systems, the value that the industry gets from it will continue to rise. Already, 68% of manufacturers have started implementing AI solutions, according to a joint study from the Boston Consulting Group and World Economic Forum.

In 2024, the application of gen AI is not about automating away people’s jobs; it’s about augmenting human intelligence and enabling frontline workers to be more efficient in their day-to-day tasks.

4. Manufacturers Will Leverage Emergent Tools to Add New Context to Their Data

Traditional data strategies often overlooked human-based data, which wasn't captured or prioritized. However, the industry is now moving towards a more holistic approach to data collection that includes human-generated inputs.

The widespread availability of tools like large language models, for example, now enables straightforward analysis of unstructured data like defect reports or detailed comments provided by your frontline workers. As media like photos and videos are becoming as ubiquitous as other data types, they too offer new possibilities for solving quality inspection and compliance challenges.

While the importance of contextualizing data has long been recognized, manufacturers are now able to leverage a much wider range of data to add context to other inputs captured in the production process. This allows them to achieve a much more holistic view of their operations and open the door for new kinds of insights that were previously impossible. Ultimately this is not just about collecting more data, but doing more with what you already have.

5. Engineers Will Want to Engineer Again

The manufacturing industry is facing a critical transition in the role of engineers. These workers are motivated by solving real engineering challenges rather than performing manual data collection and other routine or mundane tasks. And manufacturers that do not offer the desired opportunities risk losing these highly trained professionals to industries that offer more dynamic and intellectually stimulating roles.

The new generation of engineers, entering the workforce with advanced skills and training, are looking for opportunities that leverage their expertise in meaningful ways. Consequently, manufacturers must evolve beyond traditional roles and create environments where engineers can engage in innovative, analytical, and complex problem-solving. This change is crucial not only for retaining and attracting skilled talent but also for fostering innovation and maintaining a competitive edge — especially given the estimated 2.1 million American manufacturing jobs expected to go unfilled by 2030 according to Deloitte and the National Manufacturing Institute.

Process engineer building a Tulip app in the app editor.

Recommendations for Operational Excellence in 2024

This year stands to be pivotal for the manufacturing industry, bringing with it numerous challenges but equally as many opportunities to innovate. Where should manufacturers get started? Here are three practical ways to make the most of the upcoming shifts in the industry.

Transition to a Composable Approach

The move away from the one-size-fits-all model of traditional MES solutions towards a more composable and adaptable framework calls for systems that are not just broadly flexible but that can be entirely customized to individual manufacturing processes. Embracing a composable approach means creating an environment where changes can be made rapidly and new systems can be easily integrated to meet shifting production demands, allowing for improved efficiency and agility.

Prioritize Your Most Important Asset: Your People

Without a doubt, the most valuable asset any manufacturer has are the people working on the frontlines of their operation day-in and day-out. Any decision on what technologies to adopt or what changes to make in your operations in 2024 should be done with them in mind first and foremost.

For operators, this means focusing on reducing monotonous tasks and empowering them to use their intimate knowledge of your process to solve problems and innovate. For engineers, this involves cultivating an environment where they can fully utilize their skills along with modern technologies to continuously improve the production process. Especially given the labor shortages the industry is facing, taking steps like these is critical to attracting and retaining the next generation of talented employees.

Embrace the Open Ecosystem

The days of any single vendor being able to supply best-in-class solutions for all aspects of your manufacturing operation are long gone. The transition towards open, interoperable digital architectures will be critical for manufacturers who want to select the combination of tools and technologies that best fits the unique requirements of their operations.

This open approach also allows you to stay agile, by making it straightforward to adopt new technologies and integrate them into your existing architecture. By building your tech stack around an ecosystem of open protocols and standards, you can seamlessly integrate solutions from a wide range of vendors to create a future-proof architecture that is tailored to your specific needs.

Next-Gen Manufacturing: Trends and Predictions for 2024

Check out our on-demand webinar for a deeper dive into each of these predictions — and more tips on how to plan for operational excellence in 2024.

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