Changing consumer expectations – how can manufacturers keep up?

Universal Robots ANZ country manager, Peter Hern, explains how manufacturers
can stay on top of consumers’ changing demands. 

Consumer expectations of service are changing rapidly, placing greater demands on businesses to improve, or risk failure. The ease of access afforded by online shopping sites, and the rising popularity of same day delivery services has led to audiences that expect goods faster, and of a higher quality. Alongside these trends, consumers are becoming more ethically and sustainably-minded, with an increasing preference for businesses that share their values.

To keep up, many businesses are already integrating faster and more agile procedures within their production processes, including new technologies that create higher quality products faster, and contribute to safer, more ethical production. Companies of all sizes are now incorporating technology such as 3D printing, collaborative robots (cobots), and Internet of Things (IoT) to enable a connected manufacturing chain and improve speed to market.

Importance of customer satisfaction

In the current consumer landscape, business reputation is a key indicator of success. The rise of social media has led to more personal engagement with businesses, as well as greater loyalty and a system reliant on shared trust. Because of this new, trust-based economy, reputational damage has become a key concern for businesses executives across the world.

Ensuring manufacturing processes are faster, flexible and more ethical will enable people to build their reputation while satisfying their audience’s demands. A recent study showed that nine out of ten millennials would switch brands to one associated with a cause, or that had strong business ethics. These decisions should drive businesses to improve their manufacturing processes and overall commitment to higher standards.

Among these new demands is an increasing push for ethical sustainability in all businesses. Between 2016-2017, the commercial and industrial sectors in Australia produced 20.4 million tonnes of waste, despite a growing call for waste reduction. Calls for change have increased pressure on manufacturers to become smarter, cleaner and safer in the manufacturing of their goods. And it’s not just waste that’s in the spotlight – businesses with outsourced manufacturing in regions with patchy labour laws and standards risk alienating customers who are becoming increasingly discerning in their desire to choose companies that have a positive impact on people and planet.

Integrating new technologies

With activity levels across the manufacturing sector growing, sustainable and ethical supply chains are becoming essential to building customer goodwill and meeting changing expectations.

Integrating new technologies such as 3D printing or automation will help achieve these goals. In the case of 3D printing, production processes use only the necessary material to create goods, and can make use of sustainable materials like hemp and biodegradable plastics. In 2018, this technology inspired Deakin University’s School of Engineering to create a complete product supply chain that reclaimed all manufacturing wastage.

Similarly, automation tools like cobots, which work alongside manufacturing workers unlike traditional robots, can create products with a high-degree of consistency, ensuring businesses are maximising their material resources and minimising waste. Automation also increases productivity levels, allowing businesses to reshore manufacturing processes from areas with higher risks around human rights to jurisdictions where labour issues are minimal. By taking advantage of these technologies, businesses have the opportunity to respond to changing consumer expectations while also increasing productivity and profits.

Talbot Technologies, a New Zealand-based plastics manufacturer, is one example of a manufacturing firm that has implemented technology to improve consistency, reduce wastage and increase profits. By using cobots for in-mould modelling, transfer moulding, and co-moulding tasks, the firm was able to reduce waste as the machines were able to create the output they wanted every time. For this, and other manufacturing technologies, the payback period can be as little as twelve months.

Despite this, the Australian manufacturing sector currently has large knowledge gaps when it comes to integrating cutting-edge technologies like robotics, automation and 3D manufacturing. More must be done to facilitate this integration. In the field of robotics, Australia is already taking great leaps. In 2018, the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision laid out its roadmap for the manufacturing future and this made it clear that robotics technology will soon have an important part to play for all businesses – particularly the manufacturing sector. In fact, by 2025, automation in manufacturing could increase employment by six per cent, creating a range of new jobs and upskilling existing ones.

The future of integration

In future, our workplaces will no longer be defined by traditional rules. New technologies will define the ways that we work and change the roles that we play. Workplaces will play host to humans and robotics, working alongside each other as co-workers rather than just as tools. IoT will mean that workers are more connected to the workplace than ever, and with constant, real-time communication available, the manufacturing plants of the future will be agile, flexible and reactive to change. Automation and other technologies will help reduce waste and minimise risks to workers who will be freed from the dirtiest and most dangerous work.

Implementing faster and more streamlined manufacturing procedures by utilising technologies like cobots will help businesses meet and exceed changing customer expectations, by improving standards, reducing reputational risks and delivering higher-quality products, faster. The rewards for manufacturers that adapt are clear – those that are slow in responding to changing expectations, by failing to embrace the future of manufacturing, risk losing business to others that will.