Heard at IFSWoCo15: Four top takeaways

Panelists at IFS' World Conference 2015 share their predictions about the future of manufacturing.

By Christine LaFave Grace

Software vendor IFS, whose largest industry served is manufacturing, hosted its World Conference 2015 in Boston this week for customers, business partners and industry analysts. Disruptive technologies – from drones to driverless cars – and how they will affect businesses and the global workforce were a hot topic of conversation throughout the conference. We're incorporating automation into more and more tasks in our professional and personal lives, speakers and panelists noted – so what does the short-term and mid-range future likely hold for manufacturers?

Here, four key comments shared by some of the conference's prognosticators this week:

1. "I think we'll see the ubiquity of sensors." - Joshua Bellin, research fellow at Accenture

Speaking at a panel discussion on trends shaping the future of information technology, Accenture's Joshua Bellin said sensors are changing business models. Sensors' real-time status monitoring enables the kinds of pre-emptive interventions that in manufacturing can prevent machine failure and unplanned downtime. (In a healthcare context, they could help your workers avoid a heart attack or another medical emergency.)

As a predictive maintenance tool, sensors' applications are wide-ranging, indeed. Christian Thindberg, CIO of Sporveien, a public transportation operator based in Oslo, Norway, said that sensors on train car doors allow his company to apply a predictive approach to ball-bearing maintenance. The sensors detect the force required to close the car doors, and when Sporveien sees an 10 percent increase in the force needed to shut the doors, Thindberg said, it can predict that the ball bearings will fail within two weeks. Just-in-time maintenance and replacement interventions help minimize service disruptions, Thindberg said.

2. "I think it's about 10 years max until we see the first driverless cars on the road somewhere in the world." - Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia co-founder

Wales gave the keynote address Wednesday morning and said he had had the chance to visit Google and check out the company's in-development self-driving car. His takeaway? Driverless cars are "virtually inevitable."

"When you think of the skills needed to be a good driver," – focusing their attention ranking high among them – "they are almost the opposite of the things people are good at," Wales said. "Driverless cars will be dramatically safer."

What could that reality look like in a manufacturing context? Consider the concept of a self-driving forklift. The Washington Post reported last summer on a version of that technology, albeit one applied outside the plant world: In Germany, a self-driving, forklift-like robot is parking business travelers' cars at DusseldorfAirport.

Whether through delivery drones, driverless cars or self-propelled robots, the ways in which people and goods get around are poised for real – not just fantastical – change.

3. "Your customers' demands will not be as predictable." - Antony Bourne, global manufacturing industry director, IFS

The ability to adapt to shifting customer demands on the fly will be an increasingly important trait of successful manufacturers, Bourne suggested in a session Wednesday on industrial manufacturing and high-tech. "It's going to be much more erratic, and you need to be able to react to that," he said. "We all know that the pace of change is increasing."

Manufacturers will need to have the ability to reconfigure units and product assembly lines to meet clients' changing demands and custom specifications, Bourne further suggested.

Industrial manufacturers have rapidly evolving consumer technologies and services to thank in part for this need-it-now, need-it-my-way mentality. The influence of these came up in repeatedly in discussion during the week, with panelists pointing to Amazon's efforts to get regulatory approval for the use of drones to deliver customers' orders within 30 minutes.

"Consumer trends tend to affect the workplace a few years after they hit the consumer market," Accenture's Bellin said. If individuals have a given technology at home or in their car, they're going to want it at work as well, he said. This has implications for manufacturers both in addressing clients' demands and in attracting the next generation of plant employees.

And, finally...

4."Innovation is the medicine against disruption." - Morten Vardal, managing director at Accenture

Vardal, in a sentiment echoed throughout the week, emphasized the need to get out in front of the trends shaping the manufacturing industry today. Expanded automation applications and better use of real-time data collection and analysis are poised to bring profound change to manufacturing as well as workers' everyday lives. 

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