5 Manufacturing Predictions for 2021

Sometimes we’re so close to the trees that we can’t see the forest. We’re so focused on this one tree, not realizing that the forest is growing and changing all around us. I feel that way when I think about all the manufacturing technology changes that have been going on around us in 2020 and into 2021. I’ve been reading these “manufacturing predictions for 2021” articles, and they’re saying the same things I’ve been saying for a few years, so I wonder if things aren’t changing at all, or if we’re only improving on the major technologies we’ve been seeing for a few years. Or, am I so focused on these technologies that I don’t really see how much things have changed in a few years?

Or maybe 2020 had us marching in place and so companies didn’t get a chance to leap forward the way they normally would with these new changes.

Still, here are a few manufacturing predictions for 2021, based on an article in Forbes and another in the Business World website from India.

1. Artificial intelligence is getting smarter

Photo of two hands over a crystal ball. Let's look into it for our manufacturing predictions of 2021.I remember when artificial intelligence was still the subject of many science fiction stories, and now it has become a decision-making engine by processing a lot of data and taking seconds to perform calculations that would take a human months.

Forbes said the latest AI accomplishment — DeepMind’s AI program, AlphaFold, was able to determine a protein’s 3D shape from its amino acid, which was a major undertaking never before done by an AI before. As a result, developments like this could result in drugs being brought to market in months, not 10 years, and done for a fraction of the current price tag of $1 billion.

So my prediction is that AI is getting smart enough that it can process bigger amounts of data much faster — Moore’s Law says processing will get both faster and cheaper. This is good news for digital manufacturers who are analyzing large swathes of data on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis.

That’s going to become more important because. . .

2. Measurement will continue to grow

This didn’t appear in any of the predictions I read, but it’s one I think the futurists should consider as more companies embrace digital manufacturing or work with companies that use digital manufacturing technology.

Other companies, as they learn about the importance of measurement and analytics, are going to begin counting things they weren’t before, like machine operations, quality checks, and even personnel issues.

Plus, as concern for the environment grows, even as the federal government gets back into the business of environmental regulations (not to mention the growing states’ levels of enforcements), I expect to see more companies that are required to count their various airborne emissions, disposal efforts, and liquid disposals. Those kinds of things will be measured and a manufacturer’s regulations, fines, and licensing fees will be based on those measurements.

3. 3D-Printed Construction Will Continue to Grow

The last two years have seen major growth and adoption of 3D-printed houses. Using giant scaffolding for framing and large piping bags and hoses, designers have been able to 3D print houses from concrete in a few days.

Houses are printed and ready to move in after 30 days, and the cost is a fraction of that of a stick-built house. Right now, the trend is geared more toward what Forbes called “a small, unprofitable market” (low-cost housing for people who can’t afford a traditional house), but in the last two years, we’ve seen printed houses get both bigger and taller. (A 2-story house was printed in Belgium in 2020.) I think it will be just a year or two before we see 2,000 square foot, 2-story homes being printed and lived in.

Forbes also suggests that 3D printing can also be used to manufacture studs, window frames, doors, and pipes. While these would most likely be made from composite material, I’m still feeling bullish on the whole 3D construction market and think we’ll see more and more 3D printed houses coming to middle-class, suburban neighborhoods near you.

4. Industry 4.0 Means Digital-Only Factories Coming to the Forefront

As a whole, manufacturing is still a little on the fence when it comes to digital manufacturing. But the companies that are doing it are seeing the benefits almost immediately. They’re able to measure their results immediately, they eliminate waste and save money, they have mountains of data to analyze, and they can do short production runs, switching products and configurations in minutes with little to no downtime.

We’ll start seeing more digital-only factories, as this can be a low-cost venture for new factories who want to get into small production runs. For example, an industrial 3D printer can cost anywhere from $50,000 to more than $250,000. While that may seem high, consider what one or two people could do with a steel printer in a small machine shop. Projects are more agile, they can do short production runs, or even make working prototypes for area manufacturers.

I don’t expect giant factories to suddenly shift over to digital-first production facilities, but I do expect to see an increase in the number of digital manufacturing startups popping up around the country.

This will all lead up to a. . .

5. More Localized Production and Supply Chain

Manufacturers who need short-run OEM parts will no longer be required to buy large quantities that they keep on hand for years. They’ll be able to get short-run productions made within a few hundred, or even a couple thousand, miles from home.

This will follow the larger trend of reshoring and bringing manufacturing jobs to the United States. This will also have an effect on shipping, as more of these parts and products can be shipped regionally, rather than via freight or even long-haul truck lines.

I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business, including pivoting within their industry. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

Photo credit: Nvodicka (Pixabay, Creative Commons 0)

Author: David Marshall
I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.