The plastics and manufacturing industries are experiencing rapid evolution with many exciting trends on the rise. The changing landscape of manufacturing includes exciting developments such as the growing use of Internet of Things (IoT) as well as innovative advances in polymers and additives. Also, improved automation and factory connectivity are supporting major growth in the plastics industry.

The following five key trends have the greatest potential for significant impacts not only to the plastics industry but also to the world of manufacturing. The manufacturing industry is positioned to drive growth across the U.S. economy in 2017 and beyond.

Manufacturers have adopted many operational and product innovations to stay competitive in the aggressive world of global manufacturing. One operational improvement that has proven invaluable to lasting profitability is the concept of connected factories. The power of connected factories lies at the top to bottom integration of the manufacturing process—from design to development and into final production and distribution. This has resulted in improved efficiency and overall response to the challenges inherent in the manufacturing system and processes logistics.

Technology, including the use of IoT, has led the way to high-level integration within one or more physical buildings in a manufacturer’s operation. Networked devices and automated digital alerts and notifications have improved productivity, increased accuracy, and have helped drive operating costs lower throughout the organization.

The global production of plastics has grown exponentially year-to-year since their introduction into the lives of people across the world. They are an indispensable part of the world in which we all live. The use of plastics in modern society will continue to expand just as rapidly as designers and engineers can innovate, but as applications increase, so too does the environmental impact production, consumer maintenance, and disposal has on the environment.

Environmental impacts include greenhouse gas emissions and air, land, and water pollution as well as the use of water for production. Plastics have had a wide-reaching, and beneficial impact on the world and mindful manufacturers strive to match this impact and benefit through environmental stewardship. Progress has already been made in plastics sorting, increased recycling efforts, and finding usefulness in regrind and recovered materials within the walls of manufacturing operations. Continuing advances in the creation of renewable materials is the next phase in manufacturers commitment to the environment.

Advances in light-weighting will continue to trend upward and impact how all products are manufactured in the future. Plastic resins and additives are among those on the forefront of light-weighting innovation and have helped move major industries like the auto industry away from metals to plastic. Replacing metals with plastic is a trend that will continue to move across all industries. Designers and engineers have begun to explore light-weighting options early in the DFM process. We are seeing this trend take hold in exciting ways in the construction industry and this will continue.

Trends in automation and customization give manufacturers flexibility in how they manage and operate product assembly. Robots are now equipped with vision systems capability and can be programmed to perform a wide array of diverse tasks. As an added benefit, automation is helping to drive innovation in the customization of manufactured products like never before. Consumers are becoming increasingly accustomed to the customization of even the smallest details of high-end products such as finishes and interior aesthetics. This is made possible by advanced robotics and has positively impacted many manufacturing operations’ bottom line.

The benefits of near-shoring are often debated among manufacturers, but the impact of near-shoring on production is becoming more widely accepted. Companies across the globe recognize that close proximity to the product source is a common sense best practice. Flexibility and the agility to respond quickly to consumer demands and trending innovations creates a better, more efficient production process—and these are the most frequently cited benefits of near-shoring. In addition, near-shoring helps reduce associated logistics costs.

Industry-changing technologies and approaches will continue to shape the factory of the future. It is essential that manufacturers embrace both innovation and continuous improvement over time. Advanced manufacturing technologies, tools, processes, and practices have forever changed the design, development, and production paradigm. For plastics, advances in resin materials, improved automation, and connected factories are the major game changers that will propel the industry forward to a bright future. The U.S. has responded well to foreign competition by embracing new technology and investing in DFM and other engineering methods that support and reward innovation. It is this competitive spirit and solutions that will advance the use of plastics far into the future.