The manufacturing industry is facing a major transformation. Characterized by geopolitical tensions, supply chain disruptions, rising costs and sustainability goals, the past year has created an urgent need for innovation in manufacturing. Protolabs, a global manufacturing specialist, published a trend forecast for 2024 that shows significant shifts.
One of the main trends for 2024 is the increasing integration of artificial intelligence (AI) into manufacturing processes. Protolabs expects the transition to smart factories to gain momentum through the combination of AI, 5G, Internet of Things (IoT), data analytics and cloud computing. This development is expected to bring cost savings, improved product quality, increased safety and sustainability.
2023 marked a record in the implementation of 3D printers and additive manufacturing in the industry. For 2024, Protolabs predicts an increase in efficiency and speed in this area.
“Traditionally, additive manufacturing has been used primarily for the production of prototypes,” explains Björn Klaas, Vice President and Managing Director of Protolabs Europe. “What we are currently seeing, however, is that more and more companies are also having regular components manufactured that are ultimately installed in the finished product. Metal 3D printing and increasingly modern printing processes play a special role here – but so does the use of AI, which will continue to drive this development forward.”
Another prediction concerns the increasing decentralization of companies. The proximity of production to where the products are used helps to shorten transport routes and minimize supply chain problems.
“Due to the fact that the varying availability of resources, specialization in individual manufacturing processes and existing established supply chains do not always make it possible to work with local facilities or suppliers, this forecast initially seems counter-intuitive,” explains Björn Klaas. “However, closer cooperation with local partners enables companies to be more flexible and react more quickly to changing customer needs and market trends. Manufacturers will therefore increasingly adopt a hybrid approach in 2024, where they can use both a central factory and a network of local facilities as required.”
AI and cobots (collaborative robots) are fundamentally changing the world of work. Over half of those surveyed by Protolabs believe that cobots will increase productivity and promote creative processes.
“The ever-increasing shortage of skilled workers clearly shows that employees are still highly relevant for companies,” explains Björn Klaas. “Companies need to adapt in order to attract and retain talent. In addition to an increased focus on greater support from cobots and robotics on the factory floor, other modern revolutions within the world of work are also approaches to shaping the production of the future.”
Another important trend is the development of new materials and the rise of 4D printing. Protolabs expects that reactive materials that can change their shape or properties will be increasingly used. This will be particularly relevant in industries such as aerospace, medical technology and smart textiles.
“Sustainability continues to be a top priority in manufacturing, both in companies’ processes and in the products they produce,” explains Björn Klaas. “Industries such as aerospace, automotive and the energy sector have regulatory targets to meet, such as net zero consumption by 2050, so much of their product development is focused on reducing carbon dioxide and integrating highly efficient technologies.”
“Accordingly – and this can hardly be emphasized enough – sustainability is one of the most important topics for the industry in 2024 and in the years to come. For Protolabs, it is clear that we will continue to be available to our partners and customers as an excellent and sustainable manufacturing service provider in the coming year,” concludes Björn Klaas.
The manufacturing industry faces major challenges and opportunities in 2024. The Protolabs report underlines the importance of AI, 3D printing, sustainability and new materials for the future of manufacturing. With these technologies, companies are better equipped to respond to the rapidly changing demands of the market while being environmentally conscious.