U.S. manufacturers have new incentives to modernize their factories. New tax rules make it more attractive for companies to invest in equipment, allowing manufacturers to immediately deduct the full cost of equipment purchases. Previously, companies were allowed to write off only a portion of the cost in a single year.
The new rules apply for the next five years at least, creating the potential for sizable investments and modernization in U.S. factories along with opportunities to leverage the data it generates. Where might manufacturers focus their equipment investments? Here are three high-tech trends poised to change manufacturing.
Manufacturing automation has been common since the 1970s, but improvements in robotics are accelerating innovation on the factory floor. Take the apparel industry. While parts of the industry have been mechanized since the sewing machine’s debut during the Industrial Revolution, fabric is notoriously hard to work with and usually requires dexterous human hands for final assembly. In the U.S. and overseas, technology is becoming so advanced that machines now can handle pliable fabrics, stitching pockets and attaching belt loops. Atlanta-based Softwear Automation has patented “sewbots” that make clothing, home goods, and footwear on fully-automated worklines, while Adidas recently opened “Speedfactory” shoe production plants that use computerized knitting machines in the U.S. and Germany.
In addition to “sewbots,” technological improvements have brought us “cobots”: robots that work alongside and in collaboration with humans. These robots often are mobile, agile, and equipped with sensors. They can handle multiple tasks such as “pick and place” operations, making factory work less repetitive and physically taxing for humans. Amazon is on the forefront of automation. In late 2017, it estimated it had already put more than 100,000 robots to work, including roving shelves and mechanical arms that help humans improve the company’s warehouse efficiencies.
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