Steve Brown, Futurist

Cutting-edge technological advances, from using augmented reality to train factory floor workers to leveraging blockchain technology to enhance products throughout their lifecycle, are set to alter the course of manufacturing.

“Technology will reshape every business on the planet, including manufacturing, over the next decade,” renowned futurist Steve Brown said.

Brown pointed to six technologies that will have the most far-reaching impact. They are:

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Block-chain technology
  • The Internet of Things
  • Augmented reality
  • 5G and satellite networks
  • Autonomous machines

“Collectively, these technologies are building a bridge between the physical world that we all live in and the digital world that we know increases in capability exponentially,” Brown said.

Brown, who served as futurist and chief evangelist at Silicon Valley information technology giant Intel Corp., will deliver the keynote address at WMEP Manufacturing Solutions’ Manufacturing Matters! Conference on Feb. 27 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Milwaukee.

“Companies often get very comfortable in the reality of today. People get busy,” Brown said. “That’s why I have a job as a futurist. Every business is operating in a very competitive environment and they have to think about today’s issues and often don’t have the luxury of time to think about next week or next month, let alone five years from now.”

The six technologies will generate more change in the next 10 years than top technological advancements – the personal computer, the Internet, mobile technology and cloud technology – had over the previous 40 years.

“No company that I work with, unless they have a gigantic IT department, is ready to make these kinds of changes on their own,” Brown said. “Companies are going to need to rely on their IT suppliers far more than they ever have. What I try to do is empower people to know what questions to ask of their IT suppliers so they can push them to give them the solutions that they need to remain competitive.”

A failure to focus on and adopt new technologies in the face of increasing competition can have dire results.

“Think retail,” Brown said. “One of the biggest and most successful companies, Amazon, the online retailer, has come in and devastated that sector because it was willing and understood the importance of investing in technology while traditional retailers didn’t.”

Innovation allows manufacturers to build higher quality and customized products and make working conditions better and more challenging for their employees, he added.

“Typically, automation replaces tasks that are monotonous and repetitive,” Brown contends.  “It frees up workers to then focus on tasks that use skills that are uniquely human and tap into employees’ creativity, insight, dexterity and experience.”

Technology, particularly in the form of robots, can be used to address a crippling shortage of workers.

Brown noted that collaborative robots can work side by side with employees on the factory floor.

“Collaborative robots can safely co-exist in the same space as humans and take on much more complex tasks than they could in the past, which makes them far more useful for companies that are facing labor shortages,” Brown said.

Technological advances are also improving the speed and efficiency of the employee onboarding process, he added.

“The onboarding process for bringing people onto the manufacturing floor and getting them up to speed so they can be productive can be way too long,” Brown said.

The promise of augmented reality is to have an employee put on a headset that will show them, through the use of digital holograms, what to do next, in essence creating real-time training, Brown explained.

“It means an employee can be productive on day one on the job,” he said.

The Portland, Oregon, resident said his message to Manufacturing Matters! attendees will focus in part on best practices for automation.

Brown also plans to discuss aspects from his new book, “The Innovation Ultimatum,” which focuses on the game-changing technologies that will are reshaping business. The book also addresses what skills are needed to be successful in an automated economy.

Focusing on the future, regardless of current demands, is vitally Important.

“To be successful in any industry segment requires you to keep one eye on today and one eye on tomorrow,” Brown said.