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Out With Analytics, In With Wearables: US Manufacturers Reveal Top Tech Priorities

U.S. manufacturing investments in analytics and the Internet of Things (IoT) are maturing, prompting many makers to look to the next generation of tech like wearables, virtual reality and blockchain, according to a new research study led by ERP software supplier ECI and supported by Berg Research.

The companies surveyed 412 domestic manufacturers for the report, which indicates that many of these companies face considerable barriers to tech adoption, including insufficient budget (15 percent), lack of tech expertise among staff (34 percent), confusion over which innovations solve which business needs (13 percent) and worries over cybersecurity risks (50 percent). Twenty-two percent said that tech adoption plays second fiddle to boosting headcount, in line with the 34 percent that by early 2018 had hired more domestic employees in reaction to the Trump Administration’s “regulatory plans.”

What’s more, those plans and the then-threat of tariffs spurred 53 percent to strengthen to their technology infrastructure, which could be a factor in why many manufacturers credited IoT (56 percent), artificial intelligence (50 percent), robotic process automation (49 percent) and predictive analytics (44 percent) for a “resurgence in American manufacturing.”

AI still is very much a divisive technology, despite recognition of how it’s advanced the manufacturing industry. Fifty-one percent of surveyed manufacturers are using AI for something, and among laggards, 56 percent plans to roll out an AI-enabled solution at some point going forward. Three quarters of manufacturers think their company has a “firm grasp” on how AI can improve the supply chain, despite the belief that “enterprise-grade AI may still be in early development.”

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And yet some detractors can’t shake their concerns over the threat that AI and automation pose to the workforce. AI could replace American jobs, according to 49 percent of survey participants, and an even higher number, 51 percent, believe automating processes could render human workers obsolete.

With these technologies infiltrating the enterprise, manufacturers are surveying the horizon for next-gen technologies that offer tangible value and not just razzle dazzle. Wearables supplanted last year’s No. 1, big data analytics, as the tool manufacturers believe can offer the greatest potential to create business value. Simulation software (No. 2) and collaborative robots (No. 3) moved higher up the list, from their respective No. 3 and No. 5 spots last year. Manufacturers also are interested in seeing how virtual reality (No. 4) and blockchain (No. 5) can improve their operations.

Deployed by 89 percent of survey participants, ERP or similar business software is a foundational technology for the majority of manufacturers that use it to boost efficiency (61 percent), upgrade from error-prone manual processes (58 percent) and improve process visibility (57 percent). Plus, among manufacturers that were planning to implement ERP in response to the announced tariffs, 67 percent credited the software for being effective or very effective in managing the impact of the new duties.

“Our research confirms what an exciting and tumultuous year this has been for U.S. manufacturers, and we can only anticipate that these trends will continue to impact their business operations in the year to come,” Jeff Ralyea, ECi’s manufacturing division president, said. “The data also confirms the value of ERP in helping manufacturers of all sizes mitigate the challenges and chances the industry presents, and we’re committed to continuing to deliver the best-in-class, industry-specific software and services that help our own customers maintain a competitive advantage in the fast-paced and growing manufacturing market.”