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Six smart technologies to change the future of manufacturing

Posted 30 Aug 2022

Six smart technologies to change the future of manufacturing

Cillian McPolin, Photonics Technologist, Digital Catapult 

Manufacturing remains a core sector to the UK economy, with statistics showing the annual output of the UK sector to be £183 billion. That said, there has been a considerable decline recently in UK manufacturing activity – output has fallen to its weakest level since spring 2020, when the pandemic was first taking hold, with ongoing price rises and supply chain challenges impacting the sector during the current economic downturn. With this in mind, it’s more crucial than ever that manufacturers innovate in order to compete on the global stage.

Moving into the fourth industrial revolution – dubbed ‘Industry 4.0’ – necessitates new approaches to improving manufacturing operations and processes – making them more agile and efficient whilst reducing waste pre, during and post production. A clear path towards this is provided by smart technologies, together with expert support for UK businesses from Digital Catapult as part of the Smart Nano NI project.

Manufacturing challenges? The solution is Smart.


Smart technologies provide powerful means of collecting, transmitting, visualising, analysing, and acting on data, thus enabling data-driven, intelligent approaches to manufacturing; or ‘smart’ manufacturing. This encompasses a range of connected hardware and software systems – from sensors to data analysis – to optimise production, improve efficiency and resilience, and facilitate greater automation.

With that in mind, implementing one or a combination of the following six core advanced technologies will be vital in ensuring a prosperous future for the manufacturing sector:

  1. Photonics and Nanotechnology

Photonics is the science and technology of light and enables highly precise and flexible approaches to manufacturing, such as optical lithography (a method that uses light to produce patterns on a surface) and 3D printing. In addition, it affords the ability to easily monitor production, for example via vision systems, providing valuable information on the state of products and equipment in real-time. 

Nanotechnology, meanwhile, relates to the manipulation of matter on a truly small scale – one nanometre is one billionth of metre – for novel and highly beneficial properties. In the context of manufacturing, nanosensors can enable the collection of data, for example monitoring physical parameters such as temperature, whilst offering distinct advantages stemming from the use of nanomaterials.

2. Industrial Internet of Things

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) relates to the connection of a multitude of sensors and devices across a network to collect and act on data. This offers significantly greater visibility and control of manufacturing, from the factory floor and supply chain, to remote operations. Key applications of IIoT include energy and machine condition monitoring, asset tracking, the realisation of digital twins, optimisation of the factory floor, enhanced supply chain efficiency, and product servitisation.

3. Immersive technologies

Immersive technologies enable new ways of creating, viewing, and interacting with content in a 3D environment. This includes augmented (AR), mixed (MR), virtual reality (VR) and haptic technology (technology that generates movement that a user experiences via touch as part of an interface), which are highly advantageous for manufacturing owing to their capacity for high quality visualisation and intuitive interactivity. This opens the door to many innovative applications, such as remote maintenance and training, as well as greatly benefiting concept design and review.


4. 5G

5G, the fifth generation of cellular networks, provides many advantages, including high capacity (connecting many devices at once) and low latency (real-time connections). As a result, 5G is the backbone for many other technologies in a manufacturing environment, such as augmented reality, where low latency is required for effective remote engineering, and predictive maintenance – in which the performance of 5G-connected equipment is monitored to reduce downtime.

5. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) are means of providing key insights from data and subsequently taking action based on this information. This data could be collected from the factory floor, such as from sensors, or from across the business. Applying AI and ML yields valuable information on predictability and automation – for example, these technologies can enable predictive analytics to minimise disruption, enhance defect detection during the inspection of products, and forecast demand.

6. Distributed Systems

Distributed systems entail the exchange of data in a trusted manner; for example, allowing a manufacturer to share data with their suppliers whilst maintaining control over it. Distributed ledger technologies, such as blockchain, where the state of shared information is collectively agreed on, and distributed file storage, whereby information is shared across a network and is easily accessible. These systems enable critical security and transparency within supply chains and logistics. 

When used together, these smart technologies are fundamental to manufacturing productivity, while ensuring cost savings and sustainability. Digital Catapult has a cohort of technologists spanning these technology areas, with a wealth of knowledge and experience regarding how they can be judiciously employed in manufacturing.


Want to find out more? Apply for the FutureScope Smart Manufacturing Experiment


As part of the Smart Nano NI consortium, which aims to develop game-changing prototyping and smart manufacturing methods, Digital Catapult has created the Smart Manufacturing Experiment.

This initiative looks at propelling smart manufacturing in Northern Ireland and beyond, and is a unique opportunity for UK manufacturing businesses to engage with Digital Catapult’s global experts and access fully-funded workshops  to learn more about these smart technologies and how they can be employed in their businesses to address specific challenges and opportunities. Participants will also have the opportunity to develop a proposal for a prototype smart technology solution for their business, boosted by guidance and feedback from Digital Catapult.


To apply for a free place on FutureScope Smart Manufacturing Experiment before the deadline of 13 September 2022, click here.