Manufacturing Leaders Embrace AI, Edge Computing on Digital Transformation Journey

Manufacturing is a key driver of economic growth, contributing $2.3 trillion to U.S. gross domestic product, and manufacturers are advancing digital transformation to increase efficiency and productivity even more, experts say.

Yet more than 80 percent of manufacturing IT decision-makers feel that keeping existing technology running is taking valuable resources from modernization efforts, according to a MeriTalk survey conducted in partnership with Dell Technologies, Microsoft, and VMware.

During a recent webinar, manufacturing experts pointed to widespread innovation across the sector, in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), edge computing, and digital twins. But to fully achieve IT modernization, they said, manufacturing leaders must wrestle with lingering technical debt.

“There is a lot of technical debt in the manufacturing industry,” said Todd Edmunds, chief technology officer for smart manufacturing, edge and digital twins at Dell Technologies. To overcome it, he said, IT leaders are trying to better utilize existing systems – and making strategic investments aimed at securing a future filled with smart factories and connected technology at the edge.

Dell Technologies is seeing increasing focus on next-generation technology, Edmunds said, with manufacturing leaders asking, “What kinds of outcomes do we need to drive to be able to get to that next level of smart factory or smart manufacturing or wringing much more efficiency out of the infrastructure?”

Danny Streets, manufacturing industries field sales director at Dell Technologies, emphasized the cultural shifts needed to help manufacturing workers overcome legacy thinking.

“They need to understand that … if they don’t embrace this new technology in order to make these advances on the OT or the manufacturing side, their competitors are, and are taking market share from them,” Streets said.

The best way to gain buy-in for new technology and move on from legacy thinking is to work directly with employees from the start of projects, he added.

“Get them involved in the beginning,” he said, because once manufacturing workers become part of the team, “they’re actually going to help you become successful with implementing these new technologies or these new use cases that are going to support your business outcomes.”

Once the team is fully on board, Edmunds said manufacturing leaders are focusing on innovative technology solutions that can be introduced at scale, because companies may have hundreds of facilities – or more.

“I say it a lot. Scalability, repeatability, manageability, and security,” he said. “It really means more of a software-defined architecture for running these applications … a much more modern approach to the data gathering, data processing, storage, and backup.”

In particular, Edmunds emphasized, Dell is seeing manufacturing firms that are shifting to cloud also embrace edge computing. “Computing definitely has its place in this world,” he said. “But we’re starting to see much more of a continuum of cloud computing going all the way to the edge.”

Digital twins, Edmunds said, are now giving manufacturing plants superpowers that include teleportation. For one customer with 350 factories, he noted, “you can strap on a pair of VR goggles and teleport to any one of those factories in real time, and it’s like you’re walking around and you’re actually there.”

As for AI, Edmunds called it “a game changer,” and a key part of smart manufacturing for years. And now, with the recent introduction of generative AI into the manufacturing process, potential use cases have greatly expanded.

The quickening pace of IT modernization is improving manufacturing business efficiency, Streets said, with many companies implementing hyperconverged infrastructure to “re-host their existing OT apps or workloads” and simplify operations.

Virtualizing workloads, he said, improves management durability, along with scalability and redundancy.

For more insight, view the webinar on demand.