With a lot of the focus in the last few years on IIoT, Industrie 4.0, digital transformation, advanced analytics, Big Data, and the Cloud, we could pose the question: Just what will the factory of the future look like, and just where is manufacturing currently at in this transformational journey? The first thing that most prognosticators of the future of manufacturing typically consider is the emerging technologies that will drive and enable the state of manufacturing and the factories that will produce the goods that keep economies robust and consumers happy. There are, however, other areas besides just cool technologies like augmented reality, advanced robotics and intelligent automation, and hybrid additive manufacturing to consider when envisioning the factory of the future. Things like the educating the new high tech work force that will be needed, advanced supply chains, sustainable manufacturing, waste recycling, green manufacturing technologies, energy conservation, physical footprints for new flexible factories, and accommodating next generation materials with new functionalities.
Aside from emerging technologies and the digital transformation, one the general trends for future factories is toward smaller, more manageable, cleaner, well organized, highly flexible facilities that contain updated but traditional technologies (advanced automation) that can be quickly ramped up to meet volume and deliver highest quality products to constantly changing customer and market demands. Additionally, factories will tend toward flatter management structures with a more highly skilled and IT literate workforce focusing more product design improvements, process optimization, and the monitoring and controlling of these processes. We will most likely see some de-skilling in some of the traditional processes and craft skills like assembly and fabrication that will be more automated, while re-skilling in the new advanced technologies will need to take place. As the factories become more highly automated, these advanced production systems (cyber-physical machines, advanced robotics, autonomous systems, etc.) will need the next generation of technicians to support it. Contrary to the views of some, people will be a very important component of the advanced manufacturing environment. Find the talent to run these factories will be very important, along with a new focus on educating a highly technically competent workforce able to implement emerging technologies. There is no question that the workforce for the factory of future will not look like your father’s.
Each industry will define their factory of future and the technologies that they will adopt based on their own unique design/build processes and the lifecycle of the product they produce. Aerospace & Defense will adopt new materials like composites and the assembly processes required. They will adopt new fabrication processes like hybrid additive manufacturing for current production models and for next generation body structures that can only be built using AM. The Automotive industry will also use AM and new materials for their new vehicles. Final assembly lines will finally become as fully automated as upstream production (body-in-white and paint) where robotics been in place for years. Worker friendly safe robots will work side-by-side with human workers, and in some cases, replace the human worker all together.
Advanced analytics will drive much the production processes in terms of optimization and process improvement, as well as determining manufacturing best practices based on capturing operational intelligence using prescriptive analytics and machine learning pattern matching algorithms. Both predictive and prescriptive analytics will be critical components of the factory of the future, and will play a role in advanced automation based on cyber-physical systems. The entire concept of the digital factory and the digital thread that connects virtual and physical machines and production systems will drive these factories to the realization of autonomous or near autonomous production systems that will be aware of the product configuration they are building, the monitoring of the production processes, the ability to adapt and improve processes, and understand operational states and maintenance, and perform self-healing steps to correct or improve operations.
I would be remiss if I did not point out that these topics and more will be covered in the upcoming ARC in Orlando next month. The Advanced Manufacturing and the Factory of the Future session will examine these topics and present speakers that will address many of the technologies, advanced processes, and trends that define next generation manufacturing. Check the ARC Forum agenda for dates and times for this session and related sessions.
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