VP of manufacturing, technology and innovation at Jabil. Over 20 years of experience helping global teams deploy cutting-edge manufacturing.

Every year at this time, we dust off our manufacturing predictions from the previous year to see how close we came to calling the biggest trends that impacted how products were designed, manufactured and delivered. Suffice to say, the constant drumbeat of disruption in 2020 altered our realities and forecasts, so we should approach the new year with a more pragmatic view.

Bill Gates already made his top seven predictions about the dramatic ways in which the pandemic will change the world — and I agree with all of them. In particular, his assertion that remote meetings will be normalized was followed by a series of ideas about how businesses, work environments and communities will be reshaped going forward. As always, his astute observations ring true for many of us.

Below are five of my observations through a manufacturing lens. These predictions speak to the balance we’re all seeking between what worked best before Covid-19 and what needs to happen now to drive success in the months ahead:

Virtual Technologies Will Benefit From Continued Stress Testing

Augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) tools came to the manufacturing industry for all the right reasons, ranging from remote training and operator assistance to increasing productivity and compliance. With that said, mass adoption has been slow.

During the pandemic, AR/VR technologies were stress-tested in new ways and under different circumstances. As they evolve from “nice to have” to “must have” solutions on factory floors and in innovation centers around the world, expect to see advancements in form factors and operation.

There’s greater confidence that improvements in AR/VR will address needs for greater bandwidth, longer-lasting power and lighter-weight devices with improved ergonomics. Ultimately, we will be happiest and most productive when our AR/VR experiences include a virtual person or avatar standing right next to us and ready to assist in whatever way possible.

The Digital-First Work Model Will Change How We Conduct Business

The acceleration to a digital-first work model demands increased collaboration and communications on a global scale. In the new year, we’ll see continued innovations in how to connect internal employee groups and external communities of customers, partners, suppliers, investors and other important stakeholders.

A monumental shift in business interactions will be influenced by the emergence of 3D virtual showrooms, experiential innovation centers, and cloud-based “coffee bars” where people gather, commune, and interact. At the same time, corporate centers of excellence will start to resemble academies, with a wider range of educational and hands-on information available via online courses and immersive content.

Virtual site visits of global manufacturing facilities will become preferred over onsite inspections, while on-site quality, regulations and compliance audits also may take on new forms and formats. In 2021, manufacturers will continue to revisit and revise virtual procedures, guidelines, training, and education, in accordance with existing protocols and processes. Additionally, organizations that once relied heavily on in-person events, ranging from global customer and partner meetings to tech-driven conferences, will continue to calculate the cost and convenience benefits of online alternatives.

Hybrid Workforces Demand Agility And Accessibility

Global manufacturers are well-positioned to broaden and accelerate collaborative innovation initiatives as well as develop new insights through more expansive problem-solving capabilities. After all, we are on the frontlines when it comes to testing the latest digital tools and technologies while ensuring they are widely accessible to a diversified, global workforce.

A concerted effort is being focused on ensuring a wider accessibility of tools for individuals with hearing, vision, physical or cognitive challenges. While this is not a new concept, accessibility has become a front-and-center issue with the dramatic increase in virtual engagements. The sustainability of evolving hybrid work environments demands that new workflow processes adapt quickly and efficiently to specific usability and accessibility requirements.

Also, let us not forget that “screen fatigue” is real, so it is crucial to balance video and virtual collaborations with hybrid experiences wherever possible to ignite creativity and collaboration for everyone.

Multipurpose Robots And Drones Audition For New Roles

Autonomous robots have proven to be valuable assets in manufacturing for years and have become fast fixtures across different industry sectors. For example, Badger Technologies, a Jabil product division, deploys multipurpose grocery robots that traverse store aisles alongside shoppers and employees to automate hazard detection as well as scan shelves for missing, misplaced or mispriced products.

The power of autonomous robots that perform different tasks will become increasingly useful in manufacturing, especially as they connect to network or cloud environments. Robots also will gain points in versatility if they can be easily taught or programmed simply by nonspecialists. Greater use of drones, in combination with robots, also offers a lot of promise in manufacturing operations.

Still, to ensure peaceful coexistence, it is crucial to ensure that drones and robots comply fully with all safety and environmental issues, including noise concerns.

Data Leadership Encompasses Transparency And Standardization

Data leadership, accountability and governance have long been top priorities for any business that leverages real-time data insights to inform decision-making. As artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and deep learning (DL) become more pervasive across global supply chains and production operations, the need for data transparency and standardization will grow exponentially.

It comes down to extracting maximum value from data of all kinds to boost operational efficiencies while lowering cost and risk. This effort will become a major imperative in 2021 and beyond as ubiquitous access to valuable, relevant data benefits everyone. If we want insights from data science, we need clean, reliable data — and lots of it.

No Going Back

Covid-19 has changed us all. It is time to embrace what we have learned with the same amazing speed and agility showcased this past year. When it comes to 2021, bring it on! We are ready.


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