When we talk about the Factory of the Future we are talking about a collection of technologies —anthropomorphic robotics, additive manufacturing (3D printing), nanomanufacturing, the Internet of Things (IoT), virtual reality and, especially, smart (or collaborative) ICT designed to facilitate proactive knowledge management, which is a strong source of motivation.
To varying degrees, all of those technologies are, or will be, applicable to the majority of industries because they focus on short-run or single-unit manufacture and reliable, advanced design and have an element of enjoyability in application that helps us understand the science behind the things we manufacture and how we do it. And all three of these features are helping to change a production model that has reached the end of its term.
“With the IoT, additive manufacturing’s progressive layering lends itself very well to incorporation of micro-sensors in the product in the most appropriate location”
This suggests that we are going to maximise the way we integrate use of these, leaving far behind us the conventional approach of incorporating them individually, as this does not produce a multiplier effect and is solely conceived to resolve specific, local product, quality and productivity issues. If we only look at one location within the factory, then this is appropriate. But, if we look around us we realise that these technologies’ capacity for autonomous movement allows us to connect areas economically, quickly and flexibly. They are user-friendly because they operate alongside people and cooperate within the environment they work in. They are fun — making curious colleagues — and are not strictly speaking machines. Moreover, their versatility and ability to tackle new and unplanned tasks is almost total.
And that is what serving clients today requires at every level.
For its part, 3D printing is advancing rapidly, as are the manufacturing methods that it replaces, like injection, forging, casting and machining. 3D-printed products’ mechanical characteristics are not largely comparable in terms of robustness — force is always involved in conventional processes, usually in the form of pressure, and that produces properties beyond those possible with 3D printing.
In this respect, nanomanufacturing can help, because it is capable of altering materials’ electron structure, modifying the strength of their covalent or ionic bonds and making them much more robust. Moreover, it is easy to integrate it into manufacture of engineered parts. Consequently, we are already seeing symbiosis between nanomanufacturing and 3D printing.
“One thought-provoking question that always comes to the fore when we speak about the smart, digital and highly automated factory of the future is what will happen to the people within it?”
With the IoT, additive manufacturing’s progressive layering lends itself very well to incorporation of micro-sensors in the product in the most appropriate location. Furthermore, the IoT itself powerfully facilitates reconfigurable materials flows within plants, which is one of the Factory of the Future’s imperious needs. It also facilitates safe and time-efficient handling and real-time interactive identification by the virtual reality systems that are already very much in vogue. This latter technology also means that in collaborative environments in which both people and humanoid robots operate, the former are on an equal footing with the latter in terms of identification reliability and speed. In other words, they facilitate collaborative approaches.
Finally, we have intelligent ICT. Independently of their function as channels that enable people to access the scientific principles behind processes, they also make specific contributions to the other advanced manufacturing technologies I have mentioned. Essentially, these are as follows:
“3D printing is advancing rapidly, as are the manufacturing methods that it replaces, like injection, forging, casting and machining”
One thought-provoking question that always comes to the fore when we speak about the smart, digital and highly automated factory of the future is what will happen to the people within it? It is worth remembering that ‘human’ comes ahead of all the other adjectives in that list and that everything is designed so that technology facilitates and underpins peoples’ futures. There is no denying that the need for human intervention in handling tasks will fall dramatically, but other promising options open up on the factory site:
“The Factory of the Future will have a positive impact on society, acting as a powerhouse that will increase engineering knowledge whilst emphasising the human element”
The overall number of employees needed is difficult to predict, as that will depend in each case on company vision and the capacity to exploit the new business opportunities that emerge. What is certain is that the skills of those personnel capable of making a useful contribution will increase exponentially and that there will be no place for people without the necessary technical or proactive capability. This leads to a clear conclusion: the Factory of the Future will have a positive impact on society, acting as a powerhouse that will increase engineering knowledge whilst emphasising the human element.
Javier Borda Elejabarrieta, PhD Industrial Engineering, MSc Mathematical Models, MBA; CEO of Sisteplant. Lecturer in the aerospace department at Bilbao’s ETSII and in defence logistics at Juan Carlos I University.