10 Ways the Manufacturing Industry will Change in 2021

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2020 brought changes to the manufacturing industry that few, if any, foresaw; a global pandemic, a trade war, a pressing need for employees to work from home. Barring any ability to foresee the future, what can we assume about the changes 2021 will bring?

In this article, we’ll look at ten ways the manufacturing industry will change or continue to change in 2021. 

1.) Influence of remote work

Manufacturers already faced well-known issues with finding qualified workers for management and support roles. The emergence of a global pandemic in the first half of 2020 only accelerated that trend, as more and more workers were encouraged to work from home.

The question that remains is how much the emphasis on remote work will influence the day-to-day operations of a manufacturing plant. Will management be able to supervise plant workers adequately without being physically present? How will the continued development of workplace automation impact the push to work from home?

Manufacturing will continue to change and shift as these questions play out in 2021.

2.) Electrification

A growing awareness on the part of manufacturing companies of the need to become more environmentally aware and socially conscious, combined with decreasing costs of renewable energy, has led to remarkable growth in the electrification of multiple aspects of industrial production. Factories are moving away from oil- and gas-powered machinery to electric.

Even traditionally fuel-reliant fields such as transportation are quickly adapting to an electrified model. These changes bring a number of important benefits, including greater independence from global fuel supply chains. In 2021, the manufacturing industry will only continue to electrify.

3.) Growth of the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the interconnection of so many of the devices we use every day. Everything from our phones to our toasters are WiFi compatible and connected; manufacturing is no different. More and more aspects of manufacturing plants are being brought online, or at least have that potential. 

The idea of an Internet of Things contains promise and peril for manufacturers. On the one hand, the idea of remote machining would seem to be a holy grail for the industry; the ability to program and execute advanced machine tools without ever setting foot in the factory. Capitalizing on the fact that many machine tools are Internet-equipped would seem to make the idea of a lights-out factory highly possible.

On the other hand, the more aspects of the industrial process are brought online, the more potential for disruption by hackers or poor Internet security processes.

4.) Post-pandemic recovery

2021 holds great promise for a continued, at least partial recovery from the pandemic-influenced economic downturn of 2020. As industries reopen, pent-up demand has led to a quick rebound in some sectors. 

Of course, that recovery is not guaranteed to be complete or universal; some sectors, like hospitality and travel, will take years to recover. Manufacturing sectors built around those industries may take a correspondingly long time to rebound. Other factors – like the regional emphasis that will continue to shape manufacturing in 2021 – will lead to increased demand and help boost recovery.

5.) Regional emphasis

In part due to the pandemic, manufacturers are shifting their attention to local rather than global interests. The rise of tariffs, ongoing trade wars, and of course the decline of trade due to the coronavirus have all contributed to shifting expectations for industry supply chains.

To give a specific example, imports from China have dropped as trade wars and uncertainty lead manufacturers to seek lines of supply. The constantly shifting nature of the web of treaties and trade agreements that regulate imports and exports have caused some industries to prioritize regional markets.

In 2021, that region-first mentality will continue to lead to increased in-country supply chains; “made in the USA” in an attempt to better hedge against the fluctuations of changing import and export regulations. Other first-world countries will see similar trends, as “reshoring” efforts make increasing financial sense.

6.) Need for resilience

The surprise emergence of a global pandemic in early 2020, along with the accompanying economic crunch, only serves to underline the importance of resilience for manufacturers. Resilience can be achieved in many ways, including diversifying supply changes and embracing digitization, but it refers primarily to methods of financial management.

Limiting debt, boosting cash position, and carefully continuing to invest all help to improve a company’s resilience. 2021 will continue to demonstrate the need for companies to consciously cultivate resilience to better navigate changes.

7.) Increasing digitization

Alongside electrification and the Internet of Things, digitization promises to continue to radically change manufacturing processes in 2021 and beyond. Manufacturers will face the need to adopt a digital strategy that covers everything from cloud-based data storage to digital marketing.

Internal digitization will include aspects of the electrification and IoT trends mentioned above, allowing better monitoring of infrastructure energy use and fleet energy consumption. External digitization includes adopting digital marketing concepts and emerging B2B2C (Business to business to customer) models.

As with IoT and electrification, digitization will only be spurred on by the global pandemic. Companies that embrace digitization – including so-called “born digital” manufacturers that began in the digital age – will find themselves much better-placed to navigate 2021 and beyond.  

8.) Need for new talent

Digitization is one of several trends for 2021 that will necessitate a new approach to the workforce for the manufacturing industry. All workers will need to be able to work in a digital environment, and training will need to be given to bring workers to certain basic standards.

As CNC, advanced robotics, and other automation technologies continue to improve, the demand for highly-skilled talent to manage and operate that machinery will only increase. Manufacturers can no longer rely on stereotypes of “unskilled” factory workers but will need to recruit talented individuals to work with cutting-edge technology. 

9.) Emerging technology

2021 will see new technologies continue to transform manufacturing. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. manufacturers have already adopted 3D printing technology in at least a limited role. 3D printing, remote CNC, and other newly-minted manufacturing technologies offer tremendous potential for growth, particularly in combination with each other. 3D printing, an additive manufacturing process, and CNC, a subtractive process, can be used in conjunction with each other to produce and finish components more efficiently.

Automated machinery also holds great promise; while electrification can improve fleet transportation, self-driving vehicles may utterly transform it. And of course, the potential of AI for manufacturing is nearly limitless.

10.) Faster product development cycle

Ever-faster product cycles, coupled with improved delivery options, have already made their mark on manufacturing. 18-24 month product development cycles have contracted to 12 months. Industries that formerly used a quarterly or seasonal cycle have added so many smaller shows and promotions that the flow of new products is virtually constant.

While delivery systems continue to struggle to keep up with the pace of product development, technologies already in use promise to help even the odds. Drone delivery systems and automated transportation will ensure that the constant flow of new products reaches the customer with greater speed and reliability.

From remote work to self-driving fleets, 2021 will witness the continued growth of technologies with the potential to reshape the manufacturing industry.

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