Have you heard the term “Industry 4.0”?
It describes a movement toward adopting new technologies in manufacturing — everything from analytics to robotics — to enhance productivity, reduce costs, and increase competitiveness in the global market.
I believe in the concept. But here’s the thing: I fear the phrase itself has stopped some local companies — especially small- and mid-sized ones — from exploring investments that could change their operations for the better.
Rather than getting hung up on words, let’s talk about the work. Technology is advancing manufacturing — a sector that remains a driver of our regional economies in New York.
There’s too much at stake. Manufacturers that don’t plan ahead risk being left behind.
It’s something we’ve studied at AMT, the New York Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NY MEP) center serving the Southern Tier. Our team surveyed area manufacturers; nearly three-quarters said their visions aligned with the concept of adopting new technologies.
However, one in four reported having “no involvement” in improving their processes through next-generation tech. Only 35 percent had launched pilot projects. Across the board, companies felt as though their leaders don’t yet understand these practices, and their workers aren’t ready to implement them.
If introducing new technology can have transformative effects on business, why aren’t more manufacturers laying the groundwork?
It comes down to sticker shock. Local companies cited budgetary concerns as their top obstacle (66 percent); just over half had nothing at all earmarked for investments in tech. Other barriers included unclear return on investment data (59 percent), potential complexity of integration (55 percent), lack of human resources (52 percent), and a shortage of know-how (48 percent). Clearly, local manufacturers need guidance.
The first step — and most critical — is to evaluate your company. Where are your greatest shortfalls and opportunities in terms of technology? What improvements have you pushed off? Do you need to hire staff or consultants? Which areas are most likely to ensure a return on investment?
This is where many businesses get hung up — before they even have a chance to begin. These are big questions. Answering them can be daunting. The good news? Resources exist. NY MEP recently received a grant from Empire State Development’s Division of Science, Technology and Innovation (NYSTAR) to help New York manufacturers assess and implement technologies, from start to finish. AMT is administering the grant, working with its sister MEPs across New York.
Once you have a clearer picture of the opportunities, and the resources you’ll need to get off the ground, it’s time to draft a plan. I’ve seen companies take a “ready, fire, aim” approach to technology, just to have a costly new piece of equipment collect dust under a tarp. Set aside resources. Draw up a blueprint. Stick to it.
Finally, put your advancements into practice. Many small- to mid-sized manufacturers have had success introducing collaborative robots, also known as cobots, into their processes as an entry-level investment. Cobots can mitigate workforce issues by handling higher-risk or repetitive tasks such as loading or unloading and allow workers to handle other tasks that cannot be automated. When a manufacturer has difficulty filling jobs, a competitively priced cobot could keep production on track.
I have seen the results of investing in tech firsthand. One partner implemented new technology that allowed them to capture more orders, putting their company on track for a quick return on investment. Another manufacturer installed sensors in their equipment, tied to connectivity software, to measure the health of their existing technology and avoid premature upgrades. We even have a company assessing augmented reality to deliver quicker, less expensive training.
Manufacturers can’t ignore technology. Automation, connectivity, cybersecurity, and other advancements are key to staying competitive. But, again, you don’t have to figure it out alone.
Before taking the first step, decide whether your company needs assistance evaluating, planning, or implementing new technologies. Contact us at AMT; we have started taking applications for the NY MEP grant program. Or, reach out to one of New York’s other regional Manufacturing Extension Partnership centers. Talk with your network.
This work is about future-proofing New York state’s manufacturing sector. Planning ahead, today, will benefit consumers, workers, and communities — not to mention your company’s bottom line.
Carol Miller is the executive director of AMT, the regional New York Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NY MEP) center serving the Southern Tier. Manufacturers can find information on the NYS Industry 4.0 Advanced Manufacturing Initiative at www.amt-mep.org/industry4.