The Future Factory

The word “factory” conjures up a set of particular images – typically of a dedicated facility or a group of buildings with a slightly rundown exterior, located on the outskirts of a town or a city, with a shop floor that’s noisy, none too clean or well lit, and full of heavy machinery and endless conveyor belts where workers are engaged in repetitive manual tasks.

But factories focused on enabling mass production are fading into obscurity as manufacturers look for more use of current and emerging technologies to facilitate mass customization. Instead, we’ll see a variety of factories emerge in a range of locations, which may be fully automated or employ a mix of robots and human staff.

Will we still have or need factories in the future? Some manufacturers may no longer need a physical location to make products. For instance, should 3-D printers become commodity items? Perhaps then each home will become its own mini factory. Manufacturers will concentrate on product design and how to incorporate customer requests into their designs. Instead of deriving revenue from finished products, their primary way of making money will be through licensing their designs to consumer households around the world.

When building prototypes and testing products, more manufacturers will use 3-D virtual reality technologies. They can remotely monitor their facilities or those of their partners via smartphones, tablets or wearables like smart watches. Subscription-based businesses have begun to disrupt traditional manufacturers where their primary product is now less of a one-time sale and more of a rental model. The knock-on effect is there’s less need to produce as many products and more focus on how to produce a smaller number of highly robust products that will last as long as possible.

Into the Fold

With the increasing digitalization of manufacturing, there’s less need to site a manufacturing facility in a particular location to take advantage of particular natural resources. In fact, it seems strange for a manufacturer to have their primary factory at arm’s length from the rest of the business, particularly with a push to have more input from across the organization, its partners and its customers into products right from their initial development and first prototypes.

I anticipate more companies will adopt the approach of SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space transport services company, where a three-story glass corporate office sits in the center of the plant in Hawthorne, Calif. “It looks and feels bizarre to have a see-through office inside this hive of industry,” notes author Ashlee Vance in his recent book ‘Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future’ (p.226). He adds, “Musk, though, wanted his engineers to watch what was going on with the machines at all times and to make sure they could walk through the factory and talk to the technicians.”

Human/Machine Collaboration

We’re already used to seeing robots in factories. The factory of the future will feature a broader range of sophisticated and lightweight robots, which can easily move around the shop floor. At the same time, humans will make more use of larger wearable devices, which may at times mean they start to resemble robots as they put on lightweight exoskeletons so they can work well in uncomfortable conditions and lift heavy weights. The goal will be to have robots and humans work in close collaboration with each community able to take advantage of their skill sets to identify and resolve any issues on the shop floor.

Powering the Future

For factories to function efficiently, they need to run on adaptive, flexible and scalable technologies. Cloud computing will power the factories of the future. As more communities seek input into design and manufacturing, the importance of establishing, maintaining and sharing a single unified source of information cannot be overstated. Cloud-based business management suites that support all business processes including manufacturing and supply chain management can provide a manufacturer with control over and real-time insight into its operations.

At the same time, another key emerging community will be contributing massive amounts of data to manufacturers – components and finished products ‘talking’ to their makers via the Internet of Things. As more products include embedded intelligent sensors, components and finished products can start communicating their status and a mass of other data points to manufacturers and other interested parties.

Gartner estimates “the IoT will include 26 billion units installed by 2020, and by that time, IoT product and service suppliers will generate incremental revenue exceeding $300 billion.”(Gartner, ‘Cool Vendors in Italy, 2015, Published: 31 March 2015’ Regina Casonato, Monica Basso, Massimo Pezzini, Brian Manusama, March 31, 2015)

Those services will be based on the massive amounts of data created by  IoT devices. For some manufacturers, opportunities will focus on packaging services around relevant data sets, then purchased by customers or partners.

More manufacturers will need to harness that data via the cloud to meet demands from customers and legislators to track the entire lifecycles of products. More customers are starting to use how ‘green’ and sustainable a company’s entire manufacturing and supply chain operations are when making a purchase decision. Whole new businesses may be built on remaking the waste materials of various manufacturing processes.

Key Building Block

The foundation for all future factories will be harnessing cloud computing to ensure real-time control and data visibility across manufacturers’ facilities and their partners. No longer will any factory operate in isolation. Instead, it will be a data-rich physical or virtual space to enable collaboration on all aspects of bringing products to market.