The electronics manufacturing industry is experiencing an exciting period of opportunity, change and disruption - fuelled by the effects of what we all know as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
New generations of sophisticated smart factory technologies are offering the opportunity for electronics manufacturers to design ever more intelligent operations and to ramp up the speed and the efficiency with which they do business.
So as 2019 enters its final quarter, what are the key industry trends that experts believe are most likely to challenge, exhilarate and transform electronics manufacturing in 2020 and beyond?
1. An increasing emphasis on environmental accountability
Electronics manufacturers are perhaps more aware than ever of the environmental impact and sustainability of their offerings.
In what's been coined the "greening" of the factory floor, more and more manufacturers are expected to ramp up their commitment to optimising their facilities and production processes, reducing the emission of waste and greenhouse gases, and investing in alternative energy sources.
Increasingly too, manufacturers are expected to expand their focus to assess the environmental impact of each product throughout its lifecycle - from product design, to materials management, storage, packaging and recyclability.
2. Re-evaluation of the value chain
The customer experience can be impacted, whether positively or negatively, at multiple points along the purchase lifecycle and the lifespan of a product.
As recognition of the importance of 'brand experience' continues to grow, the manufacturing value chain is predicted to come under close scrutiny - whether it's increasing the sharing of information between business partners, creating more supply chain visibility, taking greater control of distribution or cutting down on fulfilment time.
3. A more customer-centric approach
A growing number of traditional B2B manufacturing businesses are acknowledging the benefits of taking a more customer-centric B2C approach - not just in terms of the end product but across the entire supply chain, from raw materials to final delivery.
By leveraging IoT technology to better understand the end user, there is also greater opportunity for manufacturers to make improvements to future iterations of their products to further enhance the customer experience.
4. On-demand and micro-manufacturing
The growing customer expectation for product personalisation and customisation will continue to fuel the need for even more agile manufacturing techniques and on-demand production processes.
The concept of 'micro-manufacturing' - in which small batches of product are produced in small facilities or 'tiny factories' - is still a relatively niche area.
However there is a growing awareness within the electronics manufacturing industry of the role that emerging technologies could play.
By finding ways to make the necessary components of electronic board production (SMT machines, reflow ovens etc) smaller, for example manufacturers will be better placed to offer product customisation and to make smarter decisions about the use of their available space, energy, time and materials.
5. Increased investment in IoT
It will come as no surprise to hear that digitisation and the Internet of Things (IoT) are continuing to shift the landscape of traditional manufacturing.
And as the adoption of smart sensor technology, cloud computing and connectivity improvements increases, industry experts are predicting that the global IoT spend could surpass the £800 million mark by as early as 2020.
6. The rise of the cobot workforce
The integration of robots into manufacturing processes is nothing new, however advancements in the design of collaborative robots - or cobots - are expected to have a much greater role to play in the electronics manufacturing workforce over the next few years.
And so much so that Barclays Equity Research has predicted that the size of the cobot market could reach close to £9.7 billion by 2025 (representing an almost eight-fold increase over a seven year time-frame.)
7. The deployment of 5G
As more manufacturers choose to adopt service-based business models, having access to high-speed internet is becoming increasingly essential to their success.
With the implementation of new super-fast "fifth generation" (5G) networks, manufacturers can look forward to download speeds that promise to be 10 to 20 times faster than they are currently.
And this more reliable connectivity could well hold the key to boosting intelligent manufacturing by enabling the processing of huge amounts of real-time data generated from a factory's many thousands of devices and sensors.
8. Growing interest in blockchain technology
The concept of blockchain technology (the process of immutably recording transactions in near real-time) was first described in the early 1990s.
However it wasn't till 2009 that blockchain was first successfully leveraged in providing the data structure for the electronic cash system Bitcoin.
A decade later blockchain is still considered to be a technology that is very much in its infancy - but a World Economic Forum survey has predicted that it could represent as much as 10% of global GDP by 2027.
While blockchain has long been recognised for its usefulness within the context of processing financial transactions, it also has some powerful potential applications which could be used to solve problems within the manufacturing supply chain.
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