Innovation in manufacturing
Innovations in manufacturing processes, such as new technologies and practices, can be critical in the success of a manufacturing business
Manufacturing businesses can use innovation in many ways. They can develop new business models, introduce new processes and materials, and take advantage of new technologies and equipment.
For businesses who compete in global markets, innovation in manufacturing processes is essential. To begin with, it can help you to improve the quality of your output. What's more, it can also help you to boost your productivity and your ability to compete in the markets, and generate profit for your business.
Advantages of innovation in manufacturing
Innovation in manufacturing can take many forms, from new technology and changes in the supply chain to product and process improvements. Innovation offers many important advantages to businesses and is often key to outperforming the competition.
Benefits of innovation for manufacturing business
Continuous innovation in manufacturing can help you to gain a competitive advantage and achieve:
- greater responsiveness to customer demands
- faster turnaround times
- reduced waste levels and downtime
- improved product design and quality
- greater potential for a wider product range
- streamlined relationships with suppliers and customers
Read also about the advantages and disadvantages of just-in-time production.
Introducing innovation to your business requires time and money. You can introduce innovation either gradually or in one go. The timeframe will depend upon a range of factors including:
- the specific changes you want to introduce
- the availability of resources to complete them quickly
- if you need to stagger disruptions to your production capacity while the transition is being made
Keep in mind that product and service innovation is often expensive and competitors can easily copy it. See how to protect innovative ideas and practices in manufacturing.
Manufacturing innovation examples
Broadly speaking, you can introduce four different types of innovation in your manufacturing business. You can introduce innovation in:
- sourcing - eg changing raw materials or suppliers in the supply chain
- processes - eg modifying production method to reduce turnaround time, cut costs, etc
- management - eg introducing new methods or processes of carrying out business
- technology - eg using new technical solutions to change the manufacturing process
Technology innovation in manufacturing
New technologies are changing how goods are manufactured across the world. Faster, more innovative technologies can:
- make your employees more efficient
- speed up your production
- improve your customer service delivery
Businesses that adopt new technologies are generally more successful in finding new ways to compete and thrive in modern markets. See more on using technology in manufacturing and find examples of digital innovation in business.
You can also undertake innovation in more than one area in your business. Find more innovation opportunities in manufacturing.
Innovation opportunities in manufacturing
To remain competitive, manufacturers must continually innovate to improve their products, processes and services. When choosing where and how to innovate, you should focus on several key areas that are likely to make the most difference to your business.
Key areas of innovation in manufacturing
There are many areas with opportunities for manufacturers to innovate, including:
- Component sourcing - new components, new suppliers or an improved deal with your existing suppliers could improve your products and your profits.
- Materials technology - new materials could improve your products or their packaging and presentation.
- Factory process control - you could automate process control, including quality control, to give better efficiency and products.
- Equipment maintenance - automatic scheduling of maintenance will ensure that the equipment runs smoothly and that you build downtime into the least busy part of the production cycle. This will also enable you to comply with health and safety regulations.
- Stock control and order processing - constantly look for better ways to streamline your order processing and stock control to ensure that you have the right amount of stock.
- Logistics and warehousing - rethink how you deliver your products to your customers so that you take advantage of new transport opportunities and keep warehousing costs to a minimum.
- IT systems - keep up to date with developments in the IT systems you use.
- Accounting procedures - you should streamline your accounting, invoicing and payments procedures with your stock control and order processing and updated regularly.
- Customer and supplier relationship management - you can gain valuable insights into how to improve your products and their delivery from your customers and your suppliers.
- Marketing - innovative marketing strategies are an important way to set the products you manufacture apart from those produced by competitors.
- Design - designers can help you develop new products and services, or redesign your existing products to improve their functionality and client appeal.
Discover the different types of Industry 4.0 technologies.
The key to innovation in manufacturing is to make sure that it's driven by your business needs, not by the attraction of change for its own sake.
Read about the business benefits of Industry 4.0.
Find opportunities to innovate
If you're thinking of innovating in your business, you should:
- consider what areas of your business would benefit most from a new approach
- consider all the different areas of your business where manufacturing innovation could be implemented
- innovate in those areas which drive the performance of your business
If you are considering implementing new technologies in your business, see also six tips for Industry 4.0 adoption.
Using technology in manufacturing
Modern manufacturing is an increasingly automated and technology-driven industry. It relies on the application of advanced technologies and systems that are changing the face of manufacturing in ways that were inconceivable just a few decades ago.
The digitisation of manufacturing has advanced so far that it is being called Industry 4.0 - representing the fourth industrial revolution driven by data, connectivity and cyber systems.
Read more about Industry 4.0: What it means for your business.
Latest trends in manufacturing and production technologies
Some of the biggest and the most proliferated trends that form the building blocks of Industry 4.0 include:
- cloud services - enabling virtual sharing of data and services from any location quickly and efficiently
- the Internet of Things (IoT) - transforming not just the consumer market, but the maintenance and upkeep of electronic devices used in manufacturing processes as well
- horizontal and vertical system integration - enabling companies, departments and functions to become much more cohesive, turning them into automated value chains
- nanotechnology - enabling things like faster computer processing, longer product lifecycles and super-precision manufacturing, and pioneering advancements in sectors such as space engineering and biotechnology
- advanced data analytics and predictive technologies - enabling better process control, prevention of defects and quicker response times in manufacturing
- augmented reality, artificial intelligence and industrial robotics - offering ways to increase productivity, improve quality and reduce cost by automating difficult or monotonous tasks
- simulation technologies - leveraging real-time data and mirroring the physical world in virtual models which can include machines, products and humans
- 3D printing (known also as additive manufacturing) - enabling the creation of almost any component using metal, plastic and other materials, reducing lead time and streamlining the design-to-production process
For more information on each of these technologies and how they are used in business, see Industry 4.0 technologies.
You may also want to learn about using artificial intelligence in business.
Advantages of investing in manufacturing technologies
The implementation of innovative technologies can improve the way businesses in the manufacturing sector operate. These technologies can:
- increase the efficiency of your business systems
- streamline your relationships with suppliers and customers
- increase the speed, flexibility and efficiency of the production process
- expand the range of what can be produced
Other examples of where technology can achieve better results include:
- resource management software that coordinates the production process
- accounting systems that link your order book with production, dispatch, invoice generation and stock replenishment systems
- streamlined warehousing and stock control systems
- online procurement and supply chain management software that lower costs and facilitate a just-in-time approach to production - see advantages and disadvantages of just-in-time production
Read more about the business benefits of Industry 4.0.
If you need support with using technology in your business, see Invest Northern Ireland's ICT support for business.
Support for manufacturing innovation
If you think that manufacturing innovation might allow you to improve your business performance, there are many sources of help and advice in the public and commercial sectors.
The following organisations offer a range of support in this area, including:
- training and financial advice
- technological assistance
- resource-sharing with other businesses undertaking innovation initiatives
Invest Northern Ireland (NI) - provides a wide-ranging support service to businesses in Northern Ireland. Read about Invest NI's support for developing products and services.
The Enterprise Europe Network (EEN) - offers help and advice to businesses. Find out about the EEN in Northern Ireland.
Business incubators - these nurture new companies by providing premises along with business, financial and technological support. See more on UK Business Incubation.
UK Government and European Union schemes - these encourage manufacturing through a range of official initiatives, partnerships and programmes.
Business networks, trade associations and professional bodies - these provide a useful source of information and best practice. Examples include the Chambers of Commerce, Trade Association Forum, the Confederation of British Industry, the Engineering Employers' Federation and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
Training providers - these can develop innovative thinking and practices.
Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) schemes - these help to identify universities and research organisations with expertise relevant to a project that your business is undertaking. Read more about Knowledge Transfer Partnerships.
Engineering departments in universities - these can offer specialist information and advice. Find out how to work with UK universities and colleges.
Advantages and disadvantages of just-in-time production
Just-in-time (JIT) production, sometimes called lean manufacturing or lean production, turns traditional manufacturing thinking on its head.
Rather than producing goods and supplying customers from stock, JIT processes focus on producing exactly the amount you need at exactly the time your customers need it.
Just-in-time advantages and disadvantages
The main advantages of JIT are that it can improve production efficiency and competitiveness.
It does this by:
- preventing over-production
- minimising waiting times and transport costs
- saving resources by streamlining your production systems
- reducing the capital you have tied up in stock
- dispensing with the need for inventory operations
- decreasing product defects
It can also bring many of these benefits to your customers, so if you have a JIT approach it can win you new business.
Despite the many advantages, there are some possible disadvantages of the just-in-time system. For example, JIT procedures can require a major overhaul of your business systems - they may be difficult and expensive to introduce.
JIT or lean manufacturing also opens businesses to a number of risks, notably those associated with your supply chain. With no stocks to fall back on, a minor disruption in supplies to your business from just one supplier could force production to cease at very short notice.
Find out more about the advantages of innovation in manufacturing.
Protecting innovative ideas and practices in manufacturing
Your manufacturing innovations are a valuable asset. They can make your business more efficient or set it apart from your competitors. Therefore, it is essential for your business' success to ensure that you:
- promote innovation across your business
- protect any innovative ideas and practices you develop
The main tools for protecting original and innovative ideas and practices are intellectual property (IP) rights. These rights include: patents, copyright, designs and trade secrets.
Patents in manufacturing
The main type of protection for a manufactured product or part of a product is the patent. Patents allow you to protect the functional and technical aspects of original products you develop. You can also patent original innovative manufacturing processes. See how to get patent protection for your business.
Copyright in manufacturing
Another way to protect your IP in manufacturing is through copyright, which can be applied to computer software, literary and artistic work. Read about copyright for your business.
Design in manufacturing
Design rights automatically apply to any new appearance for a three-dimensional object you design - you don't have to register them. However, you can also apply for design registration, which gives you extra legal protection. See design right and registration.
For more information on IP rights, see protecting intellectual property.
Trade secrets in manufacturing
Trade secrets cover manufacturing or industrial secrets and commercial secrets. They can protect a wide range of information, for example on:
- sales and distribution
- customers and their needs
- marketing or advertising
- suppliers and clients
- manufacturing processes
See more on trade secrets.
You may find it difficult to keep a trade secret confidential within your business. If it is necessary to disclose information (or parts of it) to partners or other people in your business, make sure that everyone involved signs a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).