Manufacturing changes slowly, but the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated adoption of technologies like A.I.-enabled software and robotics that could keep factories humming—and workers safe. Companies offering new materials got venture funding, and the number of startups using synthetic biology for industrial purposes multiplied.
But the pandemic also showed the weak links of manufacturing. Logistics proved tougher than many manufacturers expected, and some factories and warehouses failed to keep their workers safe from the spreading virus.
Here are our selections for 2020’s most intriguing people, companies and trends from the world of manufacturing.
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Best Product: SiO2 Materials Science
Glass vials are ordinarily pretty boring stuff, but given the challenges of Covid vaccine distribution, they’re a hot commodity. New technology from this Auburn, Alabama-based firm could prove a better option. SiO2 got a $143 million contract from Barda and the Department of Defense for its patented technology, which incorporates a plastic vial with a pure glass coating that provides thermal and chemical stability.
Most Intriguing Newcomer: Varda Space
Manufacturing products in space? That’s the concept behind Varda Space, which was incubated at Founders Fund and emerged from stealth in December with $9 million in funding. Questions abound regarding how it will become the “Foxconn of space,” as one of its cofounders quipped, but it’s the year’s boldest bet on a new way of manufacturing.
Disruptive Innovator: Vention
The process of designing and procuring industrial equipment is complex and slow. Montreal-based Vention is bringing the process online, letting customers design and order just what they need digitally. Their goal: to make the cumbersome process as easy as building with Legos.
Outstanding Firm: Stanley Black & Decker
Despite a tough spring, the $29 billion (market cap) toolmaker, whose brands include Black & Decker and Craftsman, has gained as homeowners buy power tools to make home improvements. Third-quarter sales rose 6%, to $3.9 billion, over the previous year, pre-pandemic, while net earnings soared 70%, to $395 million, in the same time period.
Annus Horribilis: Dov Charney
The ousted CEO of American Apparel set up a high-profile mask-making operation at his new firm, Los Angeles Apparel. Great idea—until it had to be shut down over the summer after the coronavirus spread to more than 300 people at the factory. Beyond the disaster at the nation’s meat and poultry plants, it was one of the worst failures to keep employees safe.
Forbes Forecast: Firms will double down on A.I. and digital manufacturing
Expect to see the trends of 2020 continue—and accelerate—in 2021. That means firms will invest even more in digital manufacturing and add even more robotics, automation and A.I.-enhanced software. Increasing numbers of existing firms and startups will turn to custom manufacturing, and 3D printing will continue to gain as a means of mass production.
And drumroll, please …
The Forbes Person Of The Year In Manufacturing: Bill Ford
Ford, the venerable automaker’s executive chairman and great-grandson of company founder Henry Ford, turned the company’s excess manufacturing capacity over to making ventilators when those life-saving machines were in short supply.
The inaugural Forbes Manufacturing Awards were based on our reporting throughout the year and were made in consultation with three industry experts: Jim Kim, general partner at Builders VC; Natan Linder, cofounder and CEO of manufacturing software firm Tulip and cofounder and chairman of 3D-printing unicorn Formlabs; and Forbes Under 30 alum Chase Feiger, who made the cut for cofounding connected-worker startup Parsable (and now has a healthcare startup, RxDefine).