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How can manufacturers harness the fourth industrial revolution to bring them closer to customers?

New technologies are rapidly altering the global manufacturing landscape, according to Richard Mathias, senior technology architect at LiveArea, with connected supply chains enabling companies to boost productivity and operational efficiency

Some in the manufacturing industry have been slow to embrace the fourth industrial revolution or 4IR. A 2018 survey published by manufacturing organisation Make UK found that 64 per cent of UK manufacturers are aware of the 4IR, yet 57 per cent have yet to make a 4IR-related investment.

A possible reason for this disconnect is that there needs to be a strong business case for investing. Each industrial revolution that has come before has brought about exciting technological advances and a need to adapt to survive or be left behind.

Manufacturers will be hearing terms such as artificial intelligence and automation, and may be wondering what the fuss regarding the 4IR is about and what the reward for embracing this revolution will be.

The answer is digital transformation. The 4IR will help manufacturers to make the customer journey to purchase smooth and personal.

Converting customers

Putting customers front and centre of a manufacturing strategy is becoming increasingly imperative. With companies across Europe and the United States facing competition from economies such as China, where high-quality goods can usually be manufactured at a fraction of the cost, businesses have to complement their manufacturing optimisation strategies with other differentiators, and leverage their closer relationship with customers.

The 4IR presents opportunities for manufacturers to better understand and get closer to their customers, by gaining unprecedented insight into buying behaviours through intelligent data analytics. If manufacturers can learn what a particular type of customer orders and how often, then they can forecast more accurately and ensure they’re manufacturing enough of a certain product to
meet demand.

With a suitable incentive, customers aren’t averse to analytics tracking their commerce journey; 87 per cent of customers say they’re willing to have their journey tracked if there are tangible benefits.

A fulfilling customer service

While the 4IR will help manufacturers to get to know customers intimately, the data leveraged through analytics can only be truly valuable if their commerce offering is up to similar standards. It’s not much use manufacturers being able to predict what products are in demand and when, if customers can’t then order goods without a glitch.

Business-to-consumer customers are already enjoying an increasingly smooth online experience, and fast and frictionless payments, and these expectations are being taken into business-to-
business (B2B) transactions. B2B portals can no longer be facsimiles of online catalogues that are difficult to navigate; manufacturers need to improve product discovery and buying decisions.

This innovation doesn’t stop at conversion. The 4IR can extend to customer service and order fulfilment. Greater insight into a customer can improve overall customer care. And by measuring key performance indicators, such as the ratio of inventory to sales and the ability to deliver the perfect order, by shipping the right product with no damage or delays, manufacturers can see how efficient their business processes are and where they need to improve.

Right products, right time

Looking ahead to what the 4IR will mean for the future of customer experience in the manufacturing industry, manufacturers will be able to be proactive rather than reactive. While some customers will still order online as and when they require products, many more will receive goods before they need them.

Take the aviation industry. Stock management is crucial yet many airlines want lean inventories so might not invest too heavily in them. When a spare part is needed, it has to be delivered as quickly as possible, but lead times can be weeks or sometimes even months. Airlines can’t afford for aircraft to be out of service for that long; every minute an aircraft is grounded, it’s eating into the airline’s bottom line.

Thanks to the 4IR and a wide range of sensors, the aviation industry is beginning to carry out predictive maintenance, helping to identify demand patterns. With this information, airlines will know which parts will be required before they need replacing, and manufacturers can ship the right parts at the right time, keeping aircraft in the sky and customers fulfilled.

LiveArea understands the complexity inherent in manufacturing. An exciting innovation being offered by manufacturers is the ability to manufacture bespoke and custom parts at scale with much shorter lead times and lower commitment quantities than ever before, to respond much quicker to breakdown, and to prototype new, more efficient assemblies.

Key to manufacturing these parts is empowering customers to specify their requirements online, and to know these custom parts will be compatible with their existing specifications and processes. This requires the end-to-end vision across technology, commerce and fulfilment that LiveArea can deliver.

Ultimately, the 4IR is enabling manufacturers to make informed data-driven decisions that support customers’ needs. Manufacturers that fail to embrace digital and smart technologies risk losing customers and being left behind by competitors and innovative newcomers.

For more information please visit liveareacx.com

Four common misconceptions

Manufacturers wary of embracing the 4IR are likely to hold some misconceptions

01 IT HAS NO CLEAR VALUE
A 2018 Make UK survey found that 30 per cent of manufacturers surveyed said they didn’t understand how 4IR technology could help their business. The most successful manufacturers are the ones that are constantly analysing their supply chains and operational models. The 4IR enables them to do this more intelligently.

02 IT’S AN EXPENSIVE INVESTMENT
This doesn’t have to be the case. Manufacturers can start small, with a couple of pilot projects, to see if there’s a business case for the technology. Results can then be presented to the executives responsible for making the final decision on investment.

03 IT’S HARD TO IMPLEMENT
Manufacturers need to find the right partner that can help unlock the 4IR’s value and to identify the technology suited to their business. The right partner will be able to support them in integrating the technology into their existing processes and supply chain.

04 IT WILL LEAD TO JOB LOSSES
While some low-level jobs will be made obsolete, there will always be the need for a human element in manufacturers’ customer service offering.

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