What will the factory of the future look like?

20.12.2018

As the fourth industrial revolution fast becomes a reality and cutting-edge, disruptive technologies are increasingly adopted into the manufacturing process, the concept of the ultra-connected factory running on robots is no longer reserved for the realm of science fiction.

Thanks to the rise of big data, the increasing sophistication of sensor technology and the unstoppable evolution of artificial intelligence, robotics and automation, companies today have a raft of emerging tools at their disposal – yet, our transformational journey has only just begun. With customer demands in a state of flux and the shift from mass production to mass customisation, industry leaders will have no choice but to innovate if they are to stay competitive.

More than a technological revolution Industry 4.0  is an opportunity to undertake a complete overhaul of the manufacturing process to modernise production and meet the challenges of globalisation. But what can we expect from the next ten years?

The fully-automated warehouse

Those looking to get a glimpse at the factory of the future need not peer into a crystal ball to understand how things might change: last year, British online-grocery retailer Ocado hit headlines by harnessing swarms of robots for their distribution warehouse in Hampshire. Known to employees as “the hive” or “the grid”, their factory is now populated by just over 1000 robots, each programmed to perform simple tasks such as lifting and sorting. 

Already, Ocado’s Hampshire warehouse is a perfect example of how logistics and manufacturing companies can take advantage of technology to save costs, boost efficiency and subsequently increase output: when fully up and running, their factory will be at its most advanced yet, processing around 65,000 orders every week. By equipping their factories with the ability to run themselves, firms benefit from reduced costs of labour and less risk of harm to workers – not to mention less room for human error.

The age of IoT

With the vast development of industrial IoT, manufacturers now have a unique opportunity to streamline operations across every point of the manufacturing process. Through the integration of data analytics and connected sensor technology to hardware, firms can create cyber-physical factories that run fluidly with minimal intervention. In this hyper-connected future, data is continually captured, analysed and translated to inform production and allow for real-time improvements.

What’s more, with the potential of better asset tracking and sensor-based alerts to signal low stock, manufacturers are able to automate inventory replenishment through the seamless flow of data throughout the supply chain. In practice, IoT has further proven valuable in proactively detecting issues within hardware, allowing manufacturers to drastically reduce disruption from downtime and protect employees from potential harm. According to a report from SCM World, 40% of manufacturers surveyed say smart manufacturing supported by the Internet of Things is within reach, and it’s the right time to invest.          

The rise of additive manufacturing

Also known as 3D printing, additive manufacturing is fast becoming a driving force in the transformation of production lines. the advent of this technology marks a radical change in direction for manufacturers: with conventional methods, machinery parts were cast, forged and produced as part of ‘subtractive manufacturing.’ Now, with the prospect of creating the same parts at a lower cost through 3D printing technology, manufacturers can look forward to reduced time-to-market through accelerated product design.

However, the potential of additive manufacturing goes even further: already, this technique is being used to produce spare parts on demand, reducing industrial inventories and solving the challenge caused by obsolescence of equipment. Should manufacturers face downtime due to damaged machinery, they can simply scan the part needed and 3D print a new one – no matter how complex the shape or outdated the equipment.

In order to meet ever-changing customer demands and overhaul factories to fit a digital landscape, the fourth industrial revolution will see the marriage of these technologies within production lines and supply chains. Today, the futuristic image of a fully-automated, self-sustaining, data-driven factory doesn’t seem so far-fetched. As more manufacturers begin to integrate smart machines into their processes, a seismic shift in the production and delivery of goods is imminent. Fully immersed in a digital world, Industry 4.0 may be a small step for man, but it’s a giant leap for manufacturing.