From the invention of the wheel to the birth of the digital revolution, innovation has been the main driving force in the development of the modern manufacturing industry. With each passing era, new technologies are introduced into the industrial world, keeping the manufacturing sector in a state of constant change. As the technologies change, so do the facilities and factories that contain them.
While it’s impossible to fully predict what the factories of tomorrow will look like, what do the current technological trends tell us about the manufacturing industry’s trajectory going forward?
Constant Stream of Data
Using sensors, the factory of the future will be able to monitor and report on everything from individual machines to entire production line systems to environmental factors in the factory. This data would then be stored in the cloud and analyzed using specialized software.
The factory of the future will be connected in almost every way, allowing for seamless operations in a range of scenarios:
- Cloud computing — Utilizing cloud technology would enable companies to access data any time, any place. Because all information would be available for everyone, and not tethered to a specific, physical machine, decisions can be made regardless of the decision-maker’s location.
- Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) — Data would also be communicated to various parts of the factory itself. For example, sensors may detect some kind of hazard that requires immediate evacuation. The sensors would communicate this information to the building’s system, which would respond by creating quarantined areas, sounding alarms, or alerting workers in various parts of the building.
- Robotic process automation (RPA) — Monotonous back-office tasks such as database management and order processing will be handled 24/7 by robotic process automation (RPA) software bots, which will make quick work of tedious jobs, with virtually no errors.
- Data analytics — Specialized software will organize and evaluate all of the data compiled through sensors and IIoT systems with the expressed purpose of creating actionable knowledge. This will then be used across multiple business fronts, including market analysis, consumer research, and predictive maintenance, as well as the supply chain and commercial fleets. Not only will this enhance traceability and transparency, it will also improve supplier and customer relations.
- Digital supply network (DSN) — The supply chain will be transformed completely by the digital supply network, which utilizes technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and sensors to create a supply chain system that’s completely transparent, traceable, and connected. Companies will be able to see every link in the chain in real time, address complications almost as soon as they come up, and deeply engage with suppliers.
- E-procurement — Processes such as inventory control, invoicing, and price negotiation that are traditionally handled using the analog models of pen and paper will instead be handled by digital platforms that coordinate with the company’s infrastructure via smart facility technologies. Not only will this reduce waste, improve production, and scale down costs, it will also enhance companies’ ability to focus on more value-based enterprises such as risk assessment and predictive analytics.
- Digital twins — Companies will create digital clones of physical systems and processes in order to garner real-time insights into operations, maintenance needs, and possible future scenarios. Everything from machines to the supply chain can be replicated in a virtual world, which will help managers and executives plan and make decisions.
- Blockchain — As a digital ledger that records data, transactions, and cryptocurrency ownership, the factory of the future will have blockchain playing a big role in data management and supply chain applications. Blockchain offers full transparency, which will make the technology crucial for regulation compliance, auditing, and other areas of business.
High-Tech Physical Tech
- Robotics, AI, and co-bots — The manufacturing industry already utilizes robotics, but, in the factory of the future, these machines will be far more advanced and collaborative. As artificial intelligence continues to mature, processes such as design, predictive maintenance, and advanced programming will become more streamlined and instantaneous. Furthermore, AI will eventually develop the ability to mimic creative thinking and nuance; this humanization will inevitably lead to working partnerships in which human employees collaborate closely with robot sidekicks.
- Virtual reality (VR) — Industrial training and STEM education will become more comprehensive with the use of VR. Instead of teaching students in a classroom, companies will be able to engage with future employees through hands-on apprenticeships. Using VR will enable these businesses to create training experiences that are highly informative, accurate, and safe.
- Augmented reality (AR) — Hands-free, voice-controlled AR devices will play a big role in equipment maintenance and monitoring. Technicians will be able to troubleshoot, observe, and digitally record machine data while keeping their hands free, which will ultimately improve safety, boost knowledge transference, and make data available on the cloud immediately.
Steady Advancement, Constant Innovation
While Industry 4.0 continues to transform the manufacturing industry, it is far from being in its final form. Based on current and emerging trends, the factory of the future will employ a wide range of cutting-edge technologies, in turn bringing about new innovations that have yet to even be imagined.
Image Credit: PopTika / Shutterstock.com