For decades, futurists have predicted a world in which combined developments in software, robotics, and artificial intelligence make it possible for factories to run themselves. And while these dreams have often been described as utopian or unfeasible, they are closer than most North Americans realize, and this is having a major impact on companies that work in the manufacturing sector. 

In the late 20th century, deregulation, technological advancements, and rapid development in some Asian and Latin American countries gave rise to theories of globalization. Many manufacturing firms in Canada and the U.S. felt pressure to offshore as much of their production as possible so as to take advantage of lower labour costs in the developing world. 

But over the past decade, those forces have started to reverse, and the cause of that reversal has been automation. Production lines that are almost entirely operated by robots don’t need to worry about labour costs, and this has fuelled an aggressive American manufacturing resurgence. 

The rate of change has also left clear winners and losers. Firms that have been able to adapt to the new realities of automation have capitalized on the benefits of Industry 4.0, while those that have been slower to move with the times have been left struggling for market share. 

This is in part due to the way automation generally happens. A single breakthrough (like the development of Wifi technology) can completely re-write the rules around how machines and humans interface, and this typically leads to a feverish period of activity of innovation and consolidation as the implications of the new technology works itself out. 

Companies that want to ensure that they are the beneficiaries of this wave of progress need to make sure they are constantly updating their production systems to take advantage of the latest tools and software. 

Metrology is a great example of this dynamic. For decades, factories have relied on high quality CMM machine equipment and software to ensure quality control, reduce bottlenecks, and guarantee the parts and products they are producing match blueprint specifications. But where CMMs were once self-contained units for gathering measurement data, new software and better connectivity has made it possible for them to operate in concert with the rest of a production line. 

This means that CMMS — once a theoretically very simple function of the manufacturing process — can feed the high-level data they gather back into the production line, in essence allowing the production line to correct its own mistakes. 

As is the case with any technological breakthrough, new equipment that gives manufacturers and edge quickly becomes industry standard, which means that successful firms need to constantly be innovating and incorporating the latest research and technology into their system. 

The new metrology tools that are currently revolutionizing quality control will not remain novel for long, and firms that want to be among automation’s winners will need to be early adopters if they don’t want to be left behind.