Rockwell Automation: The Future of Smart Manufacturing

Blake Moret, Chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation
Rockwell Automation's annual State of Smart Manufacturing report explored the future of smart manufacturing and how adversity is driving the sector forward

Rockwell Automation's 9th annual State of Smart Manufacturing report explored smart manufacturing globally, with incredible insights about the industry going forward.

 The report expands and further contextualises known challenges manufacturers are navigating. These include quality control, cybersecurity and the ongoing skills shortage. 

“The winning hand is technology thoughtfully applied by an engaged and inspired workforce," says Blake Moret, Chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation in the report’s foreword

This is even more essential with the rapid acceleration of technology adoption, driven first by the necessities of the pandemic, continuing with the need for greater resilience and underscored by subsequent supply chain shortages.

“Resilience includes the ability to weather these shortages in the future, to deal with pervasive scarcity of skilled labour and to create more sustainable business models.” 

The report also highlights how these obstacles are not necessarily a bad thing for the future of manufacturing - in fact, they’re helping companies get there. 

The report finds that adversity is accelerating the digital transformation of manufacturing operations, particularly across the Middle East and Asia. Given supply chain disruptions over the last few years, the warehouse and fulfilment industry sees the highest acceleration of digital transformation, followed by the renewable energy and chemical sectors. 

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83% of manufacturers say obstacles are accelerating digital transformation, a figure that rises above 90% for Brazil, Saudi Arabia, China, UAE, Japan and India. Digital transformation is a means to drive nation-states and the broader manufacturing sector forward, enhancing resilience against supply chain vulnerabilities and geopolitical tensions. 

Manufacturers cannot be followers when it comes to digital transformation.

Technologies like AI need to be implemented strategically, addressing specific national and international manufacturing concerns with business foresight.

What is the long-term goal of this implementation? How is it going to enhance our performance in the long term and ensure our competitiveness and profitability? These are crucial questions that every manufacturer must consider. 

With this in mind, we come to a pivotal question: what is the future of smart manufacturing going to look like? This is a question Rockwell Automation endeavours to answer, through meticulous research and study, giving manufacturers across the world essential insight into how to remain competitive and enhance their operations. 

The future of smart manufacturing 

  • AI is the biggest future investment manufacturers are focused on.

85% of respondents in the report had already invested or planned to invest in AI or machine learning. 

GenAI and causal AI, cobots and AMRs have already been adopted by manufacturers to enhance and complement the workforce, while reducing errors, increasing speed to value and improving quality.

Gen AI or Causal AI was identified by Rockwell Automation as the number one biggest investment area for the next twelve months. The next two biggest were collaborative robots, and then autonomous robots and vehicles. 

  • Automation is essential for success 

Automation is up there with AI as one of the biggest technologies manufacturers are using to enhance operations. Of 1567 respondents, 42% are addressing the manufacturing industry’s skills and labour gap through automation.

The use of automation, smart manufacturing technology and AI / ML will increase over the following five years to drive positive business outcomes and increase investment in employee training programs to accelerate successful technology adoption

Gary Nafus, Vice President of US Manufacturing at Microsoft

“ At Microsoft, we see a future where intelligent factories powered by people using AI and Generative AI become the norm, not the exception,” said Gary Nafus, Vice President of US Manufacturing at Microsoft. 

“ Emerging technologies delivered through partnered ecosystems are helping to pave the way for sustainable, autonomous operations that redefine productivity. Imagine production lines optimised by data insights, robots collaborating seamlessly, and materials sourced responsibly. This isn't just a vision, it's a reality we're building together. Let's unlock the future of manufacturing, one innovation at a time."

  • Sustainability and ESG will be crucial to mitigating risk

The top three approaches to mitigating internal risk are 

  1. Adopting technology for quantifying sustainable practices 
  2. Upskilling talent 
  3. Adopting smart manufacturing technology 

Last year, Rockwell Automation found that sustainable practices were the third biggest approach. Now it’s the first.

Manufacturers have realised that sustainability and ESG must be treated as core business priorities to mitigate risk throughout the supply chain.

Bjoern Stengel, Global Sustainability Research Lead, Sustainable Strategies and Technologies at IDC

​​​​​​​“ No matter where you are in your journey, IT is a critical enabler for that (sustainability) transformation and for value generation through corporate sustainability practices, and it is important to understand how to best leverage technology to move up to the next stage." adds Bjoern Stengel, Global Sustainability Research Lead, Sustainable Strategies and Technologies at IDC.

  • Technology investment is driving long-term business resilience 

Manufacturers that are looking at their business through a long-term lens are investing in technology. They see its potential to build business resilience and elevate their competitiveness- which is crucial, as outlined by Bain & Company in their discussion of digital transformation and OEMs

The main driver of technology investments at 62% is long-term business impacts, with the second being top-level business objectives at 57%. 

Interestingly enough, a third of respondents identified a driver as broken/ non-operational technology, meaning their investment was urgent. This highlights the global obsolescence organisations that fail to keep up with new technology investments are facing in 2024. 

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  • Manufacturers expect AI to lower risk and improve quality 

Manufacturers cited AI as the technology set to have the most transformative impact on workforce challenges. They anticipate AI will help them reduce risk, specifically in areas of cybersecurity and maintain operational quality.

Gartner predicts in the Top Strategic Technology Trends of 2024, that by 2026 more than 80% of enterprises will have used generative AI APIs, models and/or deployed generative AI-enabled applications in production environments. 

  • Leaders will find success if they effectively balance people, processes and technology 

Manufacturers overwhelmingly recognise two main leadership obstacles: finding technology and talent that matches business needs and effectively managing resources and people. 

These obstacles are deeply linked, something that both Rockwell Automation and respondents recognise. Manufacturers must adopt technologies in ways that complement and elevate their workforce, capitalising on resources in productive and impactful ways. 

Allison Kuhn, Principal Analyst at LNS Research

“The workforce of 2019 is not coming back. Developing a sustainable workforce strategy is critical to successfully navigate daunting manufacturing challenges,” says Allison Kuhn, Principal Analyst at LNS Research.

“Leaders are winning the war for talent by embracing this new reality and with a laser focus on three imperatives: total Employee Experience, servant Leadership and connected Frontline Workforce (CFW) Applications “

To embrace this future fully, and move forward with confidence and strategy, manufacturers need to assess their relationship with digital transformation. Are they in the process of developing a strategy? Or are they ready to implement? 

Answering this question isn’t as easy as it initially appears. With the importance of AI moving forward, we recommend reading PwC’s latest report on effective AI implementation, where they present a framework for categorising manufacturers based on their digital maturity. 

After assessing if they’re novices, innovators, champions or followers, manufacturers can reflect on the future of smart manufacturing explored here by Rockwell Automation, and craft a dynamic approach to digital transformation. 

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