2021: The Year of Digital for Australian Manufacturing

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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By Andy Cunningham, Regional Director, Autodesk (Australia & New Zealand)

This year is set to be a year like no other for Australia’s manufacturing industry. Major systemic changes are underway, and the impact of COVID-19 is creating a roll-on effect that is accelerating innovation faster than ever due to the practical, economic and public safety implications of the pandemic.

From resilient supply chains to digital upskilling and intelligent automation, multiple manufacturing trends will define 2021. This will be the year of digital, when manufacturers embrace digital transformation in multiple forms rather than believing it to be limited to production applications like robots. As a result, manufacturers will need a digital strategy that can overcome the challenges of globalisation, customisation, resilience, and complexity.

But digital transformation isn’t just a technology journey. It equally depends on transformation of people. Here at Autodesk, we are helping – among others – manufacturing companies in their journeys of digital transformation – from setting up the strategy, to up-levelling skills and providing the technology with which to innovate.

There are three major priorities that I have identified as key for manufacturing businesses to focus on this year. These are:

  1. Evolving our approach to data
    Manufacturers must move beyond just gathering and reporting on data and better understand what it can tell us, especially in the context of developing smarter products, automating processes, and delivering according to changing customer expectations.
    Consumers are rapidly evolving new behaviours both in relation to how and what they are purchasing, and their expectations are rising faster than manufacturing can follow. In 2020, the latest statistics show that the growth of eCommerce was up 80% year on year in Australia in the eight weeks since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared by the World Health Organisation. This makes it clear that eCommerce has not only kicked up, but it has gone into overdrive, and manufacturers need to evolve their approach to keep up and deliver according to consumer wants and needs.
    Rather than focusing on new product forms and features, customer experience will demand product designers’ attention first and foremost. For this, designers will need up-to-date information from customers and suppliers, including analytics to help them decipher what the data is telling then and tools to apply these learnings to their designs. Data will help manufacturers to get closer to end users to understand what products constitute value for them; particularly after the shocks of 2020.
  2. Strengthening supply chain resilience
    In 2021, the industry will need to find ways to make supply chains flexible enough to scale as business requirements and expectations change to accelerate new product development and consistently meet customer demands.
    In October 2020, the Morrison Government launched a new era of Australian manufacturing as part of the JobMaker Plan to rebuild the economy and recover from the COVID-19 recession. It was announced that AUD1.5 billion in new funding would be invested over the next four years to make Australian manufacturers more competitive, resilient and able to upscale.
    Strategic government investments in manufacturing are anticipated to open up new markets as well as enabling more Australian products to be taken to the world.To achieve this, the industry must invest in greater digital connectivity with strategic suppliers to strengthen collaboration. They can also take steps to spread the risk of operational downtime by finding backup suppliers for the most vital materials, services, and components. Investing in digital skill sets that support greater information sharing will take on new importance. Manufacturers might consider offering training for key strategic suppliers to help them adapt to new communication and collaboration tools.
    Supply chains need to be flexible enough to scale as business levels ebb and flow: 2020 demonstrated just how brittle they’ve become after years of relentless cost optimisation. It’s also revealed how much manufacturers still rely on critical providers that can’t easily be replaced. In 2021, manufacturers will have to adopt measures to strengthen supply chain resilience. Reviewing supplier relationships to understand where critical capabilities might lie will help shield against the impact of disruption.
  3. Embracing convergence
    We have entered a time when designers are creating products with structural aspects, and architects are building structures that function like products. Design, manufacturing and construction are converging at a rapid pace and manufacturers should consider how to take advantage of this convergence for the benefit of their business.
    The construction industry is borrowing heavily from manufacturing by adopting tools, processes, and ways of working that reduce costs and inefficiencies. This has led to greater cross-section collaboration in areas such as data. It is also impacting how construction projects execute. For example, industrialised construction has led to more prefabrication of building components for on-site assembly later. This is a direct nod to manufacturing processes.
    For manufacturers, greater convergence could lead to stronger supply chains. Construction is also bringing more agility to the sector, creating modular factories that can be restructured and reengineered quickly to create smaller batches of high-value products.
    Designers are creating products that have structural aspects, and architects are building structures that function like products. Manufacturers should be looking to recruit skill sets that complement both industries.Placing data at the center of the product-development process has also led to the convergence of design and manufacturing, where data in the cloud centralised within software tools creates a common data experience and better collaboration across departments, from the factory floor to the C-suite. This data-led convergence can exponentially accelerate product development by breaking down silos of communication between departments and by unlocking the potential for greater automation, which in turn increases productivity by reducing the delays of working manually.

Australian manufacturing businesses can proactively tackle these priorities using a combination of software, automation and skills development. In 2021 we expect to see manufacturers embrace digitisation faster than ever before to remain relevant and competitive in today’s marketplace.