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The shape of things to come: How manufacturers are leveraging technology to gain an edge

22 May, 2018

Kenneth Hoganson
Manager, PwC US
Juliane Stephan
Digital Transformation
Steve Pillsbury
Principal, PwC US

Technology has always been a key lever to improve organizational efficiency and effectiveness. With the dazzling array of emerging technology entering the market, we set out in our 2nd Global Digital Operations Survey to understand more about what technologies are being implemented and why. In essence, how is industry leveraging technology to gain an edge today, tomorrow, and in the future? What technologies are managers looking for to gain an edge in industrial manufacturing and operations?

The survey results suggest that current industrial tech investment falls into three apparent bow-waves:

  1. Today is focused on better organizing plants.
  2. Tomorrow focuses on connection and automation.
  3. The future focuses on transforming the way we work.

Technology in wide adoption focuses on value stream organization

As expected, many technologies being implemented in the “Early Majority” (40-50% of firms implemented) represent a steady progression of technology improvements that date back to work flow computerization and MRP mainframes of the 1960s and 1970s.

A new generation of operating systems are being implemented to better organize companies’ production systems; ~40-50% of firms have implemented these technologies and many more are studying and piloting operations. E2E supply chain planning is being implemented to drive an end-to-end view of the value chain. MES has been implemented at 45% of respondent firms providing a much more connected shop floor.

The first wave of technology drives additional connection and reliability within the existing system landscape. Predictive maintenance, a capability 48% of the firms are implementing, provides higher reliability at less cost. Industrial IOT, with 42% of respondents already implementing, automates and links machines to provide higher visibility and enables higher reliability, improved quality, and more precise part flow.

An increasing number of firms are implementing technology to connect and automate across systems

Beyond enhancing the existing landscape, technology that is within the “early adopter” phase acts as a “system of systems” or automates across systems.

An increasing number of firms are implementing technology that connects systems and reduces errors and inefficiency. 24-28% of firms are implementing these technologies today:

  • Blockchain allows extended enterprises and ecosystems to have a reliable, safe, and consistent data source for myriad uses.
  • RPA+ allows companies to automate manual tasks that commonly involve entering data from one system to another. It will ultimately reduce cost, improve system accuracy, and allow employees to focus on problem solving and optimization.

Emerging technology may change how individual actors work

However, a new generation of technology on the horizon could change the way work is done (8-33% have implemented these technologies):

  • Digital twin technology is changing the way engineers approach design, test and validation. While 3D design software has been around for a while, digital twin technology can drastically change the entire product lifecycle.
  • AI could dramatically shift how humans interact with their work on the shop floor and the office. For example, a properly implemented AI system could allow critical chain theories to become a reality. But beyond scheduling, AI could greatly augment the design of parts, the procuring of parts, and the management of inventory, etc.
  • Augmented reality promises to increase labor efficiency and also to enable less skilled labor to perform more difficult tasks (e.g,. in assembly at low task times or in maintenance operations). Allowing operators and mechanics to visually see standards drastically reduces errors.

Any technology implementation decision should be made outcome-back. This means that companies should start to think about which outcomes they want to create or which problem they want to solve and then pick the technology solution that best fits the needs. However, having a deep understanding of the technological change within the industry and the vendor ecosystem is paramount to the ability to pick the best solution for investing. To maximize business value, managers will need to stay on top of the development of emerging technologies and creatively think about how these can help them create outcomes previously not possible. Are you ready?

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2. Sonnenfeld, Jeffrey. “Female CEOs Taking Control Of A Male-Dominated Industry.” Chief Executive, 18 July 2019,
3. Masunaga, Samantha. “In aerospace industry, female execs soar to the top.” The Bulletin, 8 Aug. 2018.