What does the future factory look like?

The future factory may not be as far away as you think. Despite the popular image of factories as smoke-filled and uninspiring, beneath this stereotype, real innovation is taking place. Manual production lines are switching to automated assemblies and valuable data is finally being used to discover actionable insights into manufacturing operations, as part of a push towards the fourth industrial revolution.

“The role of humans in the factory of the future will be completely different. Humans will go from planning and performing manufacturing tasks to collaborating with machines, supervising operations, problem-solving, orchestrating innovative solutions and developing technology-based solutions,” says Dr Lina Huertas, head of technology strategy for digital manufacturing at the Coventry-based Manufacturing Technology Centre.

Adaptable robots can quickly switch between different jobs and offer a high level of accuracy, especially when working on repetitive tasks

Always-connected internet of things (IoT) devices, 3D-printed parts and cloud-computing solutions are just a few of the disruptive tools set to reshape the long-term prospects of the manufacturing industry. Revolutionary technologies once viewed as only possible in the realm of science fiction are now being applied to operations in the future factory, with augmented reality being used to train workers more effectively and guide staff when assembling complex items.

Staples of the future factory already in operation

So-called co-bots, or collaborative robots, are beginning to be rolled out at factories across the world to take on tasks too dangerous or complex for humans to handle. These adaptable robots can quickly switch between different jobs and offer a high level of accuracy, especially when working on repetitive tasks.

IoT sensors, too, are one of the most advanced tools at the disposal of factory managers, thanks to the ability of IoT devices to collect massive amounts of information from the plant floor. Data-analytics solutions can then extract key data points to discover ways to improve how the factory runs on a daily basis.

There are practical applications of IoT tools in factories today. “One specialist materials manufacturer began using sensors to track and control manufacturing process in their factory. This allows them to know exactly where all orders are in the factory to plan for scheduled delivery and give accurate delivery information to customers and suppliers,” says Verity Davidge, head of education and skills policy at manufacturers’ organisation EEF.

According to an EEF survey, of those companies that are in the evolution phase of Industry 4.0, the fourth industrial revolution, 35 per cent see the benefit of improved labour efficiency, 32 per cent say production flexibility has increased and 34 per cent record improved machine-utilisation rates.

People are as important as tech in the future factory

Overhauling conventional manufacturing facilities into fully fledged factories of the future will call for more than just the implementation of cutting-edge technologies. A digitally enabled workforce remains vital to the success of Industry 4.0, especially as a range of new technological skills are needed to make the most of big data.

In practice, this means current staff will require upskilling and new employees, who are talented in analytics and data science, should be added to the roster of the future factory. The end result of the future factory will not just be an optimised plant, but a transformed idea of what the manufacturing industry actually represents.

A number of hyped technologies are yet to reach their full potential and it may be years before solutions, such as 3D printing, become conventional and replace traditional production methods. But there are still dozens of modern technological tools available that have the power to change fundamentally how the factory of today operates.

Frank Piller, Industry 4.0 expert at The Leadership Network, a provider of leadership and management training to Fortune Global 500 companies, understands the importance of Industry 4.0 technologies in making humans more efficient, but believes there is a limit to digitising the way staff work.

“Don’t turn your workforce into cyborgs or let the technology guide the worker, but provide your workforce with a toolbox to make their own work more efficient and fun, too. User experience really matters,” says Mr Piller.

Getting young people excited about the future factory

A great number of consumer products, mainly virtual reality headsets, tablets and smartwatches, are assisting employees in basic tasks through their ease of use and functionality. The future factory will not be solely inhabited by robots and devoid of people, with the right balance of machines and human intelligence creating the ideal manufacturing plant.

“BMW, for example, have implemented innovation labs on the shop floor in their Leipzig plant, where workers can co-create with each other and new technologies to co-design the future of their own factory,” says Mr Piller. “By providing this freedom and room to create, the factory environment becomes much more attractive.”

Reconstructing the image of this sector will play a vital role in attracting skilled graduates and a more diverse workforce, which is needed to ensure the industry remains competitive on a global scale.

EEF’s Ms Davidge believes technological advancements, including artificial intelligence and augmented reality, are enthusing the next generation and changing the way young people are recruited for the future factory.

“When manufacturers are going into schools to show what manufacturers do, they can show them how they can be working on future projects, how they can be a space scientist and engineer working on Nasa projects, a sound engineer working at Glastonbury; all these opportunities are becoming increasingly available as technology adapts and evolves,” Ms Davidge concludes.