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  • David Howell

The Smart Factory 2033

As additive manufacturing, automation, IoT and data analytics continue to evolve at pace, what does the factory of the future look like, and how can businesses take advantage of these new technologies?

“We’ve experienced 20 years of evolution in two years,” states Rockwell Automation’s CEO, Blake Moret. His statement is telling and illustrates the seismic shifts across the manufacturing sector. According to the company’s latest report, 97% of participants have plans to use smart manufacturing technology, with over 50% more manufacturers using machine learning and artificial intelligence compared to last year.

“Manufacturers are continuing to seek opportunities for profitable growth but are realising that uncertainty in workforce availability is impacting quality, along with their ability to meet evolving customer needs,” said Veena Lakkundi, senior vice president, Strategy and Corporate Development Rockwell Automation. “The survey found that smart manufacturing technology is enabling manufacturers of all sizes to optimise more resilient, agile, and sustainable solutions that accelerate transformation. If we’ve learned anything from history, organisations that invest in innovation, with a bias for action, during times of uncertainty can outpace competitors.”

Smart manufacturing has been on an upward trajectory for the past decade, but as additive manufacturing technologies improved, this trajectory has accelerated. Business leaders can see the potential advantages to their businesses that these technologies could bring but often need more detailed technical knowledge, supply chain support, and a skilled workforce they need to realise their ambitions to embrace advanced manufacturing technologies.

Speaking to Silicon UK, James Smith, the UK Managing Director of Global warehouse automation and robotics company AutoStore, outlined his view of the factory of the future: “Automation is already being used in stock handling and factory assemblies, however in the next 10 years we will see automation being heavily implemented across the industry. Currently larger robots are working on the assembly lines, but what we don’t see as much in smart factories today is smaller robots doing the intricate work which is currently carried out by humans.”

Smith continued: “Where we will see the biggest evolution is these intricate roles being taken over by robotics as humans seek better job satisfaction. By 2033 we will have seen the removal of all manual labour in warehousing and manufacturing with a surge in automation and robotics doing the more labour intensive roles. This will allow space for workers to take on more fulfilling, rewarding, and stimulating roles in robotics management and programming which will replace those lost to automation.”

New processes

The factory of the future is taking shape today. A plethora of technologies are converging to deliver new manufacturing processes that will enhance existing systems but also allow businesses to create new processes that are sustainable and efficient.

In their report, Deloitte illustrates how multiple advanced technologies are being used to evolve the manufacturing space: “Once they establish the digital core, manufacturers are investing in disruptive technologies such as augmented reality (AR), artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), additive manufacturing, blockchain, and advanced analytics. One industrial conglomerate is using augmented technologies with digital twins for training and reskilling its employees. In another example, an aerospace leader uses drones, cloud, and sensor technologies with AR for its quality control processes.”

Tom Fairbairn, Distinguished Engineer, Solace, also thinks that customers are the driving force behind the evolution of the smart factory: “Smart factories of the future will have seamless integration into the rest of the organisation and its partners. The IT/OT divide will increasingly dissolve, certainly from a user point of view. Increasing personalisation will drive highly customised production: increasing customer expectations and the need for operational optimisation.

Tom Fairbairn, Distinguished Engineer, Solace.

“This will mean the business, and to a lesser extent partners and customers, will have a real-time view of the processes within a factory. Operational optimisation will provide businesses with a digital twin view of production, fed by real-time data, able to accurately simulate and predict the effect of manufacturing, supply chain and customer demand changes and therefore react to them. Today’s data mainly held within the plant, such as individual machine performance, sensor and granular yield data will be available and used organisation-wide.”

Scaling the future

Data is undoubtedly the key to unlocking the commercial advantages of technologies, including 5G, IIoT and additive processes for all manufacturing enterprises. These technologies are often unlocked via specific partnerships. AutoStore’s James Smith thinks businesses must address their often need for a data processing strategy.

“One challenge we can expect with the widespread adoption of smart factory technologies is the need to improve on how we use data analytics. The automation industry is still not very good at doing data analytics, which has a huge effect on how the systems work. As the industry develops, data analytics will become more and more important. We can’t rely on AI for this, and we still need people to check the results. Therefore, we need to be evolving how we input and check the data that AI is meant to gather.”

Frank Juengst, from digital consultancy Monstarlab, also says: “Before manufacturers start investing millions in new digital technologies, they must first establish if they have the technology foundations, processes and internal capabilities are in place to extract value from them. It’s about getting the basics right. New and exciting digital technologies have to be built on far more boring aspects of tech that we’ve been talking about since the 1990s: data, infrastructure and ERP systems, for example. The ability to extract value from new technologies is directly proportional to the ability to integrate them into a robust technology core. No value can be derived from the implementation of an AI predictive modelling solution, for example, if there’s no control over data in the first place.”

Frank Juengst, from digital consultancy Monstarlab.

Also, Solace’s Tom Fairbairn comments: “The manufacturing industry will have to adapt to this wave of data and “IT” within its sphere. This will require a considerable culture change: for instance, uploading batch data at the end of a batch run or day will no longer suffice – data will be acted on, as it is generated. The manufacturing workforce will need to become increasingly IT savvy: professionals can expect to take on some part of IT architect roles, while IT professionals will increasingly need to understand production engineering.”

It is also interesting that the Rockwell report highlighted that the future factory would use advanced technologies, but highly skilled workforces are still the lynchpin. “There is a growing sense that manufacturers who can attract, retain, and upskill the right team will outperform their competitors,” the report concludes. “In last year’s survey, just 35% of respondents reported that their organisation lacked the skilled workforce to outpace the competition over the next 12 months. That figure has leapt to 46% – and represents the top concern for manufacturers in relation to competitiveness.”

The smart factory is fast coming into focus for all manufacturers. The increasing pace of technological changes that are seeing several technologies maturing simultaneously and converging will result in a transformation of the manufacturing sector not seen since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

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