The digital factory of the future is not as far away as you may think
The image much of the general public has of today’s factory is one of industrial buildings and unsightly chimneys pumping out smoke. But technological innovations are quickly changing this negative perception, with the factory of tomorrow expected to make use of cutting-edge manufacturing tools, as well as being a breeding ground for transformative ideas and processes.
Mark Bottomley, UK sales director at industrial automation provider Rockwell Automation, says tomorrow’s factory will be both an enjoyable place for highly skilled staff to work and a technologically enabled space where creativity is valued.
“The factory of the future will be home to talented graduates who are looking for an exciting career and want to carry out interesting work that drives innovation in the industry,” says Mr Bottomley. “Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are central to this vision with the factory being full of people who are adding the elements that can’t yet be automated, so the creative process will happen more and more on the factory floor.”
Fully achieving the vision of a digital factory isn’t as far away as many people realise, thanks to the advances made in the manufacturing environment over the past decade. “A lot of the technology is already here,” says Mr Bottomley. “Digital screens are replacing traditional noticeboards and a lot of factories have a digital infrastructure or digital capabilities ingrained into their manufacturing system; it’s just the processes have yet to catch up.”
Obtaining funding for projects to modernise factories has traditionally been a difficult goal to achieve, but as awareness has grown around how these investments can be monetized, it has become considerably easier.
“There are more and more case studies available that prove the efficiency savings you can make by utilising industrial internet of things technologies. Conventional manufacturing areas can be targeted to make the biggest savings, especially around the reduction of downtime and increased flexibility that show digitalisation will give a clear return on investment,” adds Mr Bottomley.
Making the factory of the future a reality in the UK requires much more than just individual firms investing more in advanced technologies, with a number of structural obstacles needing to be addressed. Uncertainties around Brexit and the country’s relative weakness in productivity when compared to countries like South Korea and Germany will mean the UK must focus on its most competitive areas to take the lead.
To analyse challenges on the shop floor, manufacturing firms need to connect with external partners that are skilled in contextualising factory data
From the robust logistics and data warehouse infrastructure to the long-standing culture of innovation and a highly skilled workforce, the UK has a strong industrial foundation to build on. Mr Bottomley believes that to analyse challenges on the shop floor, manufacturing firms need to connect with external partners that are skilled in contextualising factory data.
“A certain amount of this will be done by companies such as Rockwell Automation, and we will see more and more of these processes fulfilled by software, with it being of the upmost importance to employ the best people to keep yourself ahead of the competition,” he says.
Advances in manufacturing technology also have the potential to provide small and medium-sized enterprises with a competitive advantage over larger firms, as new innovations in this field are available to all companies, no matter their size, enabling smaller businesses to offer a more flexible service.
Efficiency savings are a core benefit that the factory of the future brings to manufacturers, but a technologically enabled plant can truly transform operations factory-wide. “AI can recognise problems before they arise by analysing the huge amounts of data manufacturers produce. Importantly, having the ability to build a digital twin means you can virtually walk down the production line as the factory is designed, eliminating errors that would require costly redesigns, bringing huge competitive advantages as the time to market will be reduced,” Mr Bottomley concludes.
Learn more at rockwellautomation.com