Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Five digital factory trends to watch in 2018

November 14, 2017
By Jennifer Rideout

Photo: Zapp2Photo/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Nov. 14, 2017 – 2017 has been a remarkable year for the digital factory. Additive manufacturing and Industry 4.0 finally entered the mainstream, while the convergence of IT and operational technology (OT) gained significant traction with factory floor and IT leaders.

So the question is with the advances made in 2017, what is left for 2018? What digital trends will influence factory operations in the year ahead?

To answer this question, I enlisted the help of some friends. And it looks like 2018 is going to be another incredible year for technology on the factory floor.

IT/OT convergence will continue to be top-of-mind in 2018, as more manufacturers come around to the possibilities of an industrial IT network. Convergence is also a significant component of Industry 4.0, and will also increase as companies move from planning to implementing their Industry 4.0 projects.

The timing for this couldn’t be better — Canadian manufacturers are facing increased pricing pressure from global competitors, as well as significant personnel and operational costs. These pressures won’t go away in 2018, and through convergence, manufacturers will be able to identify efficiency opportunities that will save time and money.


This trend comes courtesy of Ben Hope, Festo Canada’s head of business development for manufacturing and Industry 4.0. When asked what digital trend he saw emerging in 2018, Ben told me the following: “2017 really saw progress on the data side of Industry 4.0. But what is the next step? If we’re taking data from our automation components, it’s likely we want to gain insights from that data; and, it’s also likely we’ll want to take actions based on those insights. We need mechatronic solutions that are agile, reconfigurable and intelligent so that they can respond and adapt to changes in production requirements. The rise of smart mechatronics will enable better manufacturing and the faster design and development of automated equipment.”

Mechatronics is a vital piece of the Industry 4.0 puzzle. Like the convergence of IT and OT mentioned above, industry-leading manufacturers will begin to leverage smart mechatronics in 2018 as they gain more valuable insights and data from equipment.

Speaking of data, there are two pillars every manufacturer needs in 2018 if they are to realize business value from digital solutions: a robust, secure IT network and analytics. Analytics aren’t possible without a network to collect data, and without analytics, the data is meaningless. As IT networks become table stakes on the factory floor, watch for analytics to become a bigger part of your technology stack to better predict machine maintenance and reduce waste.

In addition, data suggests analytics is ripe for a boom with Canadian manufacturers. In IDC’s 2017 Forecast on Manufacturing Spend, 44 per cent of industry IT leaders saw a high business value for analytics over the next five years.

Matt Rendall, CEO of Kitchener, Ont.-based Clearpath Robotics, had this to say about digital trends in 2018: “It has never been more important for processes, machines and humans in manufacturing to work harmoniously together. Intelligent automation – like self-driving vehicles – brings together sensors, connectivity and artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver flexible manufacturing processes that react in real time to changes on the shop floor. The factory of the future will be realized with intelligent automation.”

While AI and automation are hardly new, the technologies have progressed significantly since 2011. Advances in machine learning abilities, sensors and computing power on the factory floor have created the ideal environment for intelligent automation to break through in 2018.

For years, Canadian manufacturers have trailed global counterparts in the adoption of advanced technologies. This must end in 2018 if they hope to close the gap between themselves and industry leaders.

The challenge is that 2018 is poised to be the year of the intelligent supply chain. Companies who have been investing in advanced technologies for several years now have the network and analytics foundation to implement a data-enabled, agile and responsive supply chain that better services customers and increases production efficiency. As intelligent supply chain deployments increase in 2018, manufacturers in Canada need to catch up with competitors.

2018 will be a definitive year for Canadian manufacturers. The impact of technology on the factory floor is no longer debated: those who adopt digital solutions will thrive — those who don’t will not survive.

My thanks to Matt and Ben for their assistance with this article.

Jennifer Rideout is the manufacturing marketing manager for Cisco Canada. She is responsible for developing go-to-market strategies for the manufacturing sector in Canada, including channel alignment and content development. She can be contacted at

This column was originally published in the November/December 2017 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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