Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Features Industry 4.0 & Smart Manufacturing Robotics
John Laughlin, NGen’s chief technology officer shares top automation trends for 2022


April 12, 2022  by Manufacturing AUTOMATION

PHOTO: elenabs/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images.

In recent times, supply chain risks, labour market inefficiencies and heightened geopolitical tensions and the tightened global operating environment have accelerated the transition towards smart manufacturing and adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies. Automation experts share their predictions on trends that professionals need to watch out for in 2022 and respond to accordingly.

Here are the predictions made by John Laughlin, chief technology officer at NGen.

1. Manufacturing sector needs

The Canadian manufacturing sector is currently facing several areas of technological, supply chain and product disruption. A key example of this is the automotive industry’s transition from an internal combustion engine product mix to an electric vehicle (EV) product mix. With only ten suppliers accounting for 49 percent of powertrain revenues, the need to shift to more flexible manufacturing is essential not only for the ability to pivot and meet customer needs. It is crucial in order to become more cost competitive. 

EV powertrains are approximately 20 percent more expensive than internal combustion engine powertrains. This increase in cost means that vehicle manufacturers will push some of these additional costs back down onto the supply base. To retain jobs within the industry, it is critical to make the necessary investments in automation to meet the new product mix, lower volumes and higher cost pressures.

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The shifting powertrain mix may also lead to vehicle manufacturers producing powertrain components themselves. The type of assembly for an EV powertrain may also reduce the number of robots involved in the assembly, albeit replaced with a larger, more complex robotic assembly. 

2. The age of business integration

Many businesses that we work with at NGen have adopted industrial automation. However, a large proportion do not realise their business objectives.  Some of the challenges that we see are around companies investing in single automation applications and not fully identifying the challenges they are trying to address. NGen was established to help solve fundamental issues that have plagued manufacturers in Canada. For example, at NGen’s inception, 80 percent of manufacturing companies had invested in advanced technologies, but 45 percent did not meet their business objectives. Even before COVID-19, 30 percent of Canadian manufacturers were at risk of going out of business due to a lack of adoption of advanced technologies. 

We work with manufacturers to overcome some of these challenges by building collaborative projects between technology companies and manufacturers, identifying the challenges, and then putting in place the right selection of technologies to address those challenges.  

The actual realization of the benefits comes when the integration is across the entire workflow and built into business practices. This requires transparency across all workflows and across all departments. This will ultimately result in optimizing business practices and providing more targeted and measurable KPIs. In 2022, we also expect a growing opportunity to embrace digital twins. It will enable companies to integrate the equipment and business practices to allow processes to respond to each other.

3. Technology adoption 

Automation and robotics are some of the critical building blocks for advanced manufacturing. Historically, Canada has had a slower adoption rate of automation technologies outside of the automotive sector compared to other countries. Payback, ROI and the business case for automation can be hard to generalize. For specific high-volume applications, automation is essential – there is simply no other way to meet demand. However, the cost of integration, and relative lack of flexibility, remain significant barriers to adoption. In the NGen project portfolio, we see some positive signs with new automation technologies in development that integrate more functionality, advances in machine vision and machine learning that offer more straightforward, lower-cost integration and system flexibility. 

4. The continued rise of advanced technologies

In Canada, we are witnessing step changes in the advanced technologies being developed, which will serve to drive further adoption. At the same time, we also see new advanced manufacturing facilities being stood up around the country. 5G enables vast amounts of sensor data to be collected in real-time and be analyzed. This next generation of data analytics coupled with machine learning and advanced simulation offers opportunities to have more data-driven manufacturing, enabling more flexible manufacturing and lower costs. The integration of software, additive manufacturing, robotics and automation technologies allows some companies to disrupt their competitors by combining rapid turnaround, customer engagement in product design, enhanced quality control, greater precision, highly variable and low volume manufacturing and after-sales implementation and maintenance services. This works to overcome the challenges of variable demand and supply, volatile prices and labour shortages.

5. Labour market inefficiencies drive uptake of industrial automation

Canada has experienced a labour market transition, due in large part to an aging and changing workforce. Canada is not alone in this challenge – other countries such as Japan have experienced significant downturns in the labour market. One common solution to this challenge is to replace missing labour with new technologies that can drive productivity.  The issue is not that there is a lack of jobs. But in an inefficient labour market, workers do not necessarily have the skills that match the industry job requirements. This challenge hits manufacturers and goods-producing sectors the hardest as they rely on more highly skilled and technical labour. As of 2026, 20 percent of Canadian workers will be eligible for retirement. With a large contingent of the workforce exiting the labour market in the coming years, manufacturers will have to turn to new tools and technologies – especially automation and robotics – to boost productivity, remain competitive and grow their business. 

John Laughlin is the chief technology officer at NGen, a not-for-profit organization that builds world-leading advanced manufacturing capabilities, drives innovation and creates jobs across Canada. He is responsible for setting the technology direction for NGen and oversees a project portfolio of over $600 million of advanced manufacturing R&D projects. 

Read the full article in the March/April 2022 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.


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