It’s hard to remember life and work before the cloud. What was going to solve all our problems before big data? What acronym’s potential dizzied us before IIoT? What did we do with our hands before we had smartphones, and did we really navigate via physical maps just 10 years ago?
Quantifying and qualifying the effects of the cloud on the developed world’s experience of itself is almost impossible, but it’s fair to say it’s made everything different — almost. While manufacturers as individual consumers have made the shift to a cloud-dominated reality in their day-to-day lives, few have made the shift in their day-to-day work.
From sourcing quotes for CNC machining or injection molding to managing supply chains and inventory, manufacturing takes place in what mostly passes as a pre-cloud world. Yes, we have robots. Yes, we have G-code. Yes, we have Solidworks and Autodesk and EDI. While the impact of these and other technological advancements on our industry can’t be overstated, their impact has been siloed and discrete. The cloud makes it possible for these and emerging technologies to converge, communicate and cooperate, resulting in exponential increases in productivity and innovation, as well as creative approaches to risk mitigation. As the global marketplace slices and dices Time alongside ever-rising customer expectations, underutilizing the cloud is a squandering of opportunity manufacturing organizations can ill afford.
So don’t. The cloud can drive the innovation your organization needs to stay ahead of the competition, but first, how we go about our business has to change.
Here’s a look at how the cloud can bring about innovation, as well as a brief discussion on how manufacturers in the U.S. can enable and embolden the whole-hearted adoption of the cloud.
While U.S. manufacturing has chalked up a myriad of wins over the past 10 decades, from innovations used around to world to having the highest return on investment of nearly any industry in the country, manufacturing should constantly be moving forward.
However, great innovation has never been the lone domain of U.S. companies, entrepreneurs and inventors. As technology becomes more and more ubiquitous and less and less expensive, the odds that the next Elon Musk is a teenage girl in Mumbai becomes increasingly possible.
Then it’s time to forego what we’ve always done. Relying on paper trails, working inside siloed systems of communication and design, choosing RFQs just to source basic CNC machined or 3D printed parts and relying on a slow supply chain that reaches from here to Huzhou to Hanoi and back again is no way to drive innovation. The cloud can remake how we go about making.
Most manufacturers agree that collaboration is key to effective innovation. Even with a Steve Jobs at the helm, a company needs a team of engineers and designers for whom working together to realize ambitious goals is second nature. Traditionally, for teams to work well together, they needed plenty of space, time and money. Everyone on the team had to be physically present to one another, too.
The cloud changed that. Because the physical limits of time and space no longer apply, teams can now be spread across time zones and countries, and still work together in real-time on the same files, documents and designs. Talented individuals who can’t relocate or don’t desire to no longer have to forego working for organizations outside their zip code. Finally, HR departments desperate for skilled workers and talented minds can find them anywhere.
But the cloud does more for collaboration than break down physical and geographic barriers. The idea of team itself has expanded inside the cloud. With thousands of companies offering new and useful services for manufacturers to outsource business operations to, many organizations are discovering that some of their most important teammates are people they’ve never met. Because these outsourcing partners have set up shop in the cloud, utilizing them requires no special hardware or software. They’re accessible via any WiFi-enabled device and are able to streamline everything from project management and record-keeping to part design and manufacturing.
The cloud also makes it possible to collaborate with increasingly robust technologies, including artificial intelligence. Not all manufacturers have the resources to build, buy or house the processors required to make use of machine learning and AI, but the cloud pulls it all within reach.
To put it plainly: the cloud has redefined collaboration. For forward-thinking companies that desire to push their innovative capacities to the edge through a combination of talented people, outsourcing partners and mind-blowing software, the cloud becomes the where, the how, and the way.
The internet and digitization created what we call big data, but the cloud transformed it into something huge. As sensors and the Internet of Things come online in more products and in more places via more people, manufacturers are poised to know more about their customers and products than Einstein knew about the universe.
Data comes in many forms, but for the manufacturer, two types rank highest in terms of their effects on innovation: product data and operational data. On the product data side, it’s now possible to keep doing research long after products make their way into customers’ hands. From discovering when products are most commonly used to what causes them to malfunction or underperform, manufacturers can improve future versions, deploy software updates and fixes to products already in the market and pave data-charged paths to innovation that customers want.
Basically, the smart products entering the marketplace are themselves capable of being partners in innovation. Rather than just relying on people to come up with new ideas, products will generate new ideas, too, speeding up product launch timelines, reducing failures and routing paths to creativity no one has traveled before.
Operational data aids innovation in a less direct way. As data is generated, gathered and analyzed from machines and shop floors, meaningful efficiency and productivity insights will become the norm. Knowing a machine is getting low on coolant or a tool is failing before problems arise saves valuable time and money. Knowing which machinist works best on which machine with which types of materials will, too.
Innovation, because it can’t follow a preconceived formula, can always have more time and money directed at it. Any type of streamlining that results in a freeing up of either is a win for companies that long to have more to invest in innovation and R&D.
Many manufacturers are inwardly leary at the thought of disruptive technologies. From the hotel industry to the entertainment industry, technological newcomers have toppled giants in less time than it takes to get a patent, and since technological progress doesn’t ever seem to slow down, those manufacturers who want their companies to endure the next decade had best take the bull by the horns. It’s likely not a matter of if disruption is coming, but when.
Cloud computing makes for an ideal environment for disruptive technologies to take root and flourish. Nimble, inexpensive, pervasive, simple, the cloud allows for the creation and optimization of technologies that mirror its attributes. Disruptive tech, if you leverage it before it leverages you, can streamline and speed up a lot of the operations and processes that continue to bog down the industry.
Take the burgeoning online manufacturing services scene. Free of RFQs and the subsequent waiting sourcing quotes necessitates, the best of these services also make use of a partner network that’s already vetted with capabilities and capacity that are intimately understood. Basically, what manufacturers in need of CNC machined assemblies or injection molded parts get when they choose to be disrupted by an online manufacturing platform, is access to bountiful amounts of reliable supply. Add to that access the fact that the procurement timeline is reduced by weeks or months to days or minutes thanks to data-driven pricing, and all of a sudden, time-to-market shrinks, supply chain risks lessen, and procurement pains ease. Pressures on time and other finite resources are also reduced— a recipe ripe for the time and resources needed to invest in innovation to open up and expand.
Don’t just hold onto your phone. Harness the tool that makes it so useful. The cloud is manufacturing’s surest path to innovation, and it is faster and more powerful than anything that’s ever existed before. It’s high time we changed things up and made use of it.
Find out how Xometry can help you leverage the cloud for online sourcing of CNC machining, 3D printing, injection molding and urethane casting, and drive innovation across your engineering and purchasing teams here.