The technology trends that will drive energy efficiency in manufacturing

The technology trends that will drive energy efficiency in manufacturing

The manufacturing sector is moving away from traditional norms and adopting innovative best practices to digitally transform. Maddie Walker, Industry X lead at Accenture, UK, offers insight into how manufacturers in the UK market are utilising automation tools and digital solutions to accelerate business processes when faced with the challenges of rising energy costs.   

The rapid rise in energy prices has sent costs spiralling for British manufacturers – with them already facing shipping delays and the plunge in the pound increasing import costs, the pressures on manufacturers have compounded.

Make UK found that 42% of UK-based manufacturers have seen their electricity bills shoot up by 100% in the last year and most manufacturers see this rise as ‘business threatening’. The impact of rising costs and fast-paced inflation has also hurt business confidence and production. The CBI/ Accenture Industrial Trends Survey showed industrial output in the three months leading to September continued to fall, with a balance of -4%, with manufacturers expecting conditions to worsen throughout the year. Until now, the number of new orders had saved manufacturers from difficulty with prices being passed on to customers. But in an era of tightened purse strings, how long can this be sustained?

Using technology to drive resilience

Make UK also found that over one-in-ten manufacturers are reducing their operating hours or avoiding production during peak periods entirely. The survey highlights that many are considering shutdowns should prices rise by over 50%. Manufacturers are no stranger to market shocks, but the impact of a period that has lurched from crisis to crisis is a cause for concern. In response, manufacturers are exploring the use of more automation and digital technologies to deliver efficiencies and tackle the energy crisis head-on.

In this article, I’ll be discussing technology trends in the manufacturing sector including how technologies like digital twins, AI and even the metaverse, are helping the industry become more resilient. 

Digital twins will change how we make things

Digital twin technologies work by creating a virtual replica of a product or entity – be that a supply chain, or a car. Fed with real-time data, they can predict and optimise production processes and improve equipment performance. For example, Mars, the global leader in confectionary, food and pet care products and services, used digital twins in its manufacturing operations to give a bird’s-eye view of the production lines and reduce instances of over-filling packages. The twin fed sensor data from manufacturing machinery into a predictive analytics model, which allowed factory line operators to monitor events in real-time and adjust the filling process.

Moreover, when digital twins are deployed to their full potential in combination with AI and 5G connectivity, they can completely transform product development. They facilitate dialogue between designers, clients, marketing, product managers and manufacturers so products can be designed, built and updated much closer to the customer. Design and manufacturing cycles shrink from years to weeks, and by default so do the associated energy costs.

Making more, using less with robotics

There are various benefits to deploying robotics in manufacturing, ranging from improving the speed and accuracy of delivery times to reducing waste and energy use across operations. They also work wonders for improving worker safety. Many businesses already report that automated systems can achieve improved output volumes, with very few accidents or reported damage.

With advancements in AI and computer vision technology, smart robotics can be integrated into informational systems. This treasure chest of data means manufacturers can be much better prepared to adjust to varying demand, as well as boost the labour workforce with better machinery and data that are integrated into the business and its supply chain.

Smarter factories

Automation also has a role to play in saving energy costs. For example, automation software can help contextualise and process extensive data, helping manufacturers determine which parts of their operations are the most energy-dependent or reliant. This helps manufacturers automatically scale operations up or down depending on areas of need.

Predictive analytics also plays a part. There are tools that can predict which machines need (or will need) maintenance – and in the long term this prevents equipment from draining energy.

The need to make factories smarter, more sustainable and safer is one of the reasons why Accenture acquired Eclipse Automation – to offer businesses automated production lines that leverage automation, cloud, data and AI.

The productivity promise of the metaverse?

The metaverse is the next era of the internet. Imagine that today’s disparate collections of websites and apps will one day be a series of shared virtual 3D environments that exist in tandem with the physical world. Should the metaverse transform how people interact with each other and with business data, manufacturers are beginning to ponder how it will change their business.

Manufacturers are already embracing immersive technologies, like extended reality, for learning and development. By creating fully simulated environments where learners interact with the experience — it’s as close to the ‘real world’ as you can get.

Moreover, by extending digital twins of manufacturing systems into virtual spaces, companies could also have an accurate 3D representation of every plant they operate and reimagine how engineers can work on and off-site. The promise of metaverse-related technologies brings huge gains to productivity. For example, BMW is already taking steps to building digital twins of 31 different factories. The models use real-time data to recreate a 3D environment that mirrors everything from the machines on the floor to the people working at stations. The environment is used to train robots to navigate the factory, bring together designers to experiment with new line layouts and training simulations for individual tasks.

Every day the manufacturing sector is moving away from its industrial origins into a digital-first environment – and it’s this innovative thinking that will help the sector in the face of unprecedented challenges. The energy crisis is not going to subside soon, and as costs continue to skyrocket, firms will be looking to technology to help them deliver efficiencies, shorten their supply chains and boost production.

Manufacturers are braced for economic turbulence, but for many, it’ll mean a fundamentally new way of operating.

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