Future Factory: How Technology Is Transforming Manufacturing
From advanced robotics in R&D labs to computer vision in warehouses, technology is making an impact on every step of the manufacturing process.
Lights-out manufacturing refers to factories that operate autonomously and require no human presence. These robot-run settings often don’t even require lighting, and can consist of several machines functioning in the dark.
While this may sound futuristic, these types of factories have been a reality for more than 15 years.
Famously, the Japanese robotics maker FANUC has been operating a “lights-out” factory since 2001, where robots are building other robots completely unsupervised for nearly a month at a time.
“Not only is it lights-out,” said FANUC VP Gary Zywiol, “we turn off the air conditioning and heat too.”
To imagine a world where robots do all the physical work, one simply needs to look at the most ambitious and technology-laden factories of today.
For example, the Dongguan City, China-based phone part maker Changying Precision Technology Company has created an unmanned factory.
Everything in the factory — from machining equipment to unmanned transport trucks to warehouse equipment — is operated by computer-controlled robots. The technical staff monitors activity of these machines through a central control system.
Where it once required about 650 workers to keep the factory running, robot arms have cut Changying’s human workforce to less than a tenth of that, down to just 60 workers. A general manager for the company said that it aims to reduce that number to 20 in the future.
As industrial technology grows increasingly pervasive, this wave of automation and digitization is being labelled “Industry 4.0,” as in the fourth industrial revolution.
So, what does the future of factories hold?
To answer this, we took a deep dive into 8 different steps of the manufacturing process, to see how they are starting to change:
Product R&D: A look at how platforms are democratizing R&D talent, the ways AI is helping materials science, and how the drafting board of tomorrow could be an AR or VR headset.
Resource Planning & Sourcing: On-demand decentralized manufacturing and blockchain projects are working on the complexities of integrating suppliers.
Operations Technology Monitoring & Machine Data: A look at the IT stack and platforms powering future factories. First, factories will get basic digitization, and further along we’ll see greater predictive power.
Labor Augmentation & Management: AR, wearables, and exoskeletons are augmenting human capabilities on the factory floor.
Machining, Production & Assembly: Modular equipment and custom machines like 3D printers are enabling manufacturers to handle greater demand for variety.
Quality Assurance (QA): A look at how computer vision will find imperfections, and how software and blockchain tech will more quickly be able to identify problems (and implement recalls).
Warehousing: New warehouse demand could bring “lights-out” warehouses even faster than an unmanned factory, with the help of robotics and vision tracking.
Transport & Supply Chain Management: Telematics, IoT, and autonomous vehicles will bring greater efficiency and granularity for manufacturers delivering their products.
Manufacturing is becoming increasingly more efficient, customized, modular, and automated. But factories remain in flux. Manufacturers are known to be slow adopters of technology, and many may resist making new investments. But as digitization becomes the new standard in industry, competitive pressure will escalate the inventive to evolve.
The most powerful levers manufacturers can pull will come in the form of robotics, AI, and basic IoT digitization. Richer data and smart robotics will maximize a factory’s output, while minimizing cost and defects. At the unmanned factory in Dongguan, employing robotics dropped the defect rate from 25% to less than 5%.
Meanwhile, as cutting-edge categories like blockchain and AR are being piloted in industrial settings, manufacturing could eventually be taken to unprecedented levels of frictionless production and worker augmentation.
In the words of Henry Ford: “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” To reach its full potential, the manufacturing industry will need to continue to embrace new technology.