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Many countries are looking to technology to ensure that they stay ahead in the manufacturing race whether they are focusing on low-cost or high-value goods. By Jason Low, APAC Lead for Specialty Printing Group, Zebra Technologies Asia Pacific

Countries around the world, including many in the Asia Pacific (APAC) region, are locked in a competitive race to become the next manufacturing hub. After all, 80 percent of the trade activity in the world between all regions is classified as manufactured goods, versus 20 percent as services, according to the World Trade Organisation.

The insights from Zebra’s Manufacturing Vision Study are telling, with many countries looking to technology to ensure that they stay ahead in the manufacturing race whether they are focusing on low-cost or high-value goods.

The Low-Cost, High-Value Split In AsiaThe Low-Cost, High-Value Split In Asia

Comparatively developed nations like Australia, Japan, Korea, and Singapore are already in the business of manufacturing complex, innovative products. Singapore, in particular, has enjoyed strong manufacturing growth for 15 straight months as of November, fueled in large part by growth in the electronics industry. Thailand remains a strong foothold in high-value manufacturing, enjoying a stable production in the automotive, electronics, food, and chemical-related industries. Indonesia’s manufacturing sector continues to be the nation’s biggest GDP contributor, despite a decline in the past three years.

In terms of low-cost, low-value manufacturing, China has across the last two decades been a steadfast super factory, supplying the world with everyday commodities from food to apparel. As China moves into high-value manufacturing, a vacancy for low-value manufacturing has opened up. India, with its huge local market of 1.2 billion consumers, a large base of university graduates and engineers, and a friendly policy environment, exhibits the potential to take over China to become the powerhouse for low-value manufacturing in the near future.

While there are lingering concerns that automation and robotics will eventually displace the low-skill jobs on the factory floor, many industry experts and economists concede that it will be an irreversible trend. The earlier the manufacturers shore up technology and start upskilling the workers, the less painful the transition will be later.

Not only that, there exist challenges that only technology can address in the manufacturing sector. For instance, the manufacturers had identified adjusting to unpredictable demand, increasing visibility across the factory, and improving product quality, as some of their main priorities going into the next phase of advanced manufacturing.

Technology Adoption Is Non-Negotiable

In today’s vast and busy factories, it can be daunting to do everything manually, not to mention it is extremely slow, inefficient, and prone to mistakes. Increasingly, factory workers are offloading tasks to their technological helpers. The Zebra survey shows that in 2022, 72 percent of factories will arm their workers with mobile technology such as handheld computers, printers, and scanners. These mobile devices can assist the workers in looking up and recording information, and generating and inputting product labels.

RFID, a cousin to barcode technology and a building block for IoT, is also playing a key role in connecting the factories from point to point, corner to corner, by giving the goods a digital voice and allowing them to be ‘heard’ and therefore tracked in real time. An RFID tag can contain much more information than what is traditionally printed on a pallet, including detailed work instructions, bill of materials, and tracking numbers, helping workers better move the goods through a production line. Today, RFID is used to vastly improve order accuracy and traceability of an item. By 2022, only 9 percent of the factories will be devoid of RFID.

Technology Adoption Is Non-NegotiableWearable and voice-directed technology are on the rise too, with 65 percent and 51 percent of respondents planning to implement them for the workers. While wearable technology is relatively new, it unlocks the potential for monitoring worker safety and locations in the factory, therefore allowing operation managers to quickly attend to workplace safety events and more effectively allocate manpower in different stages, leading to improved productivity.

Voice-directed technology, on the other hand, is proving to be popular for large companies managing immense factories. Voice technology allows workers to carry out a task with both hands and receive or give instructions at the same time, elevating efficiency and productivity. What’s more, many of the big manufacturers also rely on voice technology to efficiently coordinate for just-in-time (JIT) shipments, which are typically hectic and labour-intensive.

Last but not least, real-time tracking systems (RTLS) are becoming popular among manufacturers too. In the past, manufacturers only tracked their products at the goods-in and goods-out stages of the process, making it extremely challenging to accurately locate the source of a quality issue should one occur. This has contributed to unnecessary spending on rectifying the issue. RTLS come to the rescue by illuminating the typically dark, obscure production process, and monitor quality issues.

That is not the only benefit. Manufacturers can also deploy RTLS to collect critical data about assets including location, stage, and condition – actionable information for factory managers to make better business decisions. These data can also be sent quickly to internal and external suppliers, so they can respond to restocking requests or demand surge swiftly. Unsurprisingly, by 2022, more than 55 percent of factories will be furnished with RTLS.

While the transformation spells an unclear future for the manufacturers in the region, they seem to be determined when it comes to technology adoption. In fact, by 2022, half of the manufacturers in APAC will have smart factories, compared to one third as the global average.

Emerging Victorious In Industry 4.0

As we enter the age of industry 4.0, manufacturing is no longer about simply making things. It will be about making high-quality things in the precise moment when they are needed. Barring quality and timeline pressure, manufacturers also need to increasingly diversify their product variants, adding to the complexity in production.

With trends such as mobility, robotics, automation, and IoT, the competition is heating up in the manufacturing industry. Which country will emerge victorious from the Industry 4.0 and become the new manufacturing hub of the world? An exciting time awaits.

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