“We’ve experienced 20 years of evolution in two years,” states Rockwell Automation’s CEO, Blake Moret. His statement is telling and illustrates the seismic shifts across the manufacturing sector. According to the company’s latest report, 97% of participants have plans to use smart manufacturing technology, with over 50% more manufacturers using machine learning and artificial intelligence compared to last year.

“Manufacturers are continuing to seek opportunities for profitable growth but are realising that uncertainty in workforce availability is impacting quality, along with their ability to meet evolving customer needs,” said Veena Lakkundi, senior vice president, Strategy and Corporate Development Rockwell Automation. “The survey found that smart manufacturing technology is enabling manufacturers of all sizes to optimise more resilient, agile, and sustainable solutions that accelerate transformation. If we’ve learned anything from history, organisations that invest in innovation, with a bias for action, during times of uncertainty can outpace competitors.”

Smart manufacturing has been on an upward trajectory for the past decade, but as additive manufacturing technologies improved, this trajectory has accelerated. Business leaders can see the potential advantages to their businesses that these technologies could bring but often need more detailed technical knowledge, supply chain support, and a skilled workforce they need to realise their ambitions to embrace advanced manufacturing technologies.

Speaking to Silicon UK, James Smith, the UK Managing Director of Global warehouse automation and robotics company AutoStore, outlined his view of the factory of the future: “Automation is already being used in stock handling and factory assemblies, however in the next 10 years we will see automation being heavily implemented across the industry. Currently larger robots are working on the assembly lines, but what we don’t see as much in smart factories today is smaller robots doing the intricate work which is currently carried out by humans.”

Smith continued: “Where we will see the biggest evolution is these intricate roles being taken over by robotics as humans seek better job satisfaction. By 2033 we will have seen the removal of all manual labour in warehousing and manufacturing with a surge in automation and robotics doing the more labour intensive roles. This will allow space for workers to take on more fulfilling, rewarding, and stimulating roles in robotics management and programming which will replace those lost to automation.”

New processes

The factory of the future is taking shape today. A plethora of technologies are converging to deliver new manufacturing processes that will enhance existing systems but also allow businesses to create new processes that are sustainable and efficient.

In their report, Deloitte illustrates how multiple advanced technologies are being used to evolve the manufacturing space: “Once they establish the digital core, manufacturers are investing in disruptive technologies such as augmented reality (AR), artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), additive manufacturing, blockchain, and advanced analytics. One industrial conglomerate is using augmented technologies with digital twins for training and reskilling its employees. In another example, an aerospace leader uses drones, cloud, and sensor technologies with AR for its quality control processes.”

Tom Fairbairn, Distinguished Engineer, Solace, also thinks that customers are the driving force behind the evolution of the smart factory: “Smart factories of the future will have seamless integration into the rest of the organisation and its partners. The IT/OT divide will increasingly dissolve, certainly from a user point of view. Increasing personalisation will drive highly customised production: increasing customer expectations and the need for operational optimisation.

Tom Fairbairn, Distinguished Engineer, Solace.

“This will mean the business, and to a lesser extent partners and customers, will have a real-time view of the processes within a factory. Operational optimisation will provide businesses with a digital twin view of production, fed by real-time data, able to accurately simulate and predict the effect of manufacturing, supply chain and customer demand changes and therefore react to them. Today’s data mainly held within the plant, such as individual machine performance, sensor and granular yield data will be available and used organisation-wide.”

Scaling the future

Data is undoubtedly the key to unlocking the commercial advantages of technologies, including 5G, IIoT and additive processes for all manufacturing enterprises. These technologies are often unlocked via specific partnerships. AutoStore’s James Smith thinks businesses must address their often need for a data processing strategy.

“One challenge we can expect with the widespread adoption of smart factory technologies is the need to improve on how we use data analytics. The automation industry is still not very good at doing data analytics, which has a huge effect on how the systems work. As the industry develops, data analytics will become more and more important. We can’t rely on AI for this, and we still need people to check the results. Therefore, we need to be evolving how we input and check the data that AI is meant to gather.”

Frank Juengst, from digital consultancy Monstarlab, also says: “Before manufacturers start investing millions in new digital technologies, they must first establish if they have the technology foundations, processes and internal capabilities in place to extract value from them. It’s about getting the basics right. New and exciting digital technologies have to be built on far more boring aspects of tech that we’ve been talking about since the 1990s: data, infrastructure and ERP systems, for example. The ability to extract value from new technologies is directly proportional to the ability to integrate them into a robust technology core. No value can be derived from the implementation of an AI predictive modelling solution, for example, if there’s no control over data in the first place.”

Frank Juengst, from digital consultancy Monstarlab.

Also, Solace’s Tom Fairbairn comments: “The manufacturing industry will have to adapt to this wave of data and “IT” within its sphere. This will require a considerable culture change: for instance, uploading batch data at the end of a batch run or day will no longer suffice – data will be acted on, as it is generated. The manufacturing workforce will need to become increasingly IT savvy: professionals can expect to take on some part of IT architect roles, while IT professionals will increasingly need to understand production engineering.”

It is also interesting that the Rockwell report highlighted that the future factory would use advanced technologies, but highly skilled workforces are still the lynchpin. “There is a growing sense that manufacturers who can attract, retain, and upskill the right team will outperform their competitors,” the report concludes. “In last year’s survey, just 35% of respondents reported that their organisation lacked the skilled workforce to outpace the competition over the next 12 months. That figure has leapt to 46% – and represents the top concern for manufacturers in relation to competitiveness.”

The smart factory is fast coming into focus for all manufacturers. The increasing pace of technological changes that are seeing several technologies maturing simultaneously and converging will result in a transformation of the manufacturing sector not seen since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Abhik Paul, VP, Professional Services Roadmaps, Rimini Street

Abhik Paul serves as VP of Professional Services Roadmaps. In this role, he is responsible for working with client CIOs to maximise their ERP-related IT investments, providing solutions to pain points, optimising business solutions, and determining upgrades’ fiscal and functional viability over a 7–10-year period through cost-benefit ROI and payback analysis. Paul is a skilled executive leader with 25+ years of experience in transformational leadership, program direction, and digital optimisation at Fortune 500 clients and expertise in the supply chain, sales and marketing, CRM, manufacturing, and operations planning.

In your view, what are a smart factory’s key characteristics or components in the context of 2033?

“There are core elements to the smart factory, which start with Lean Six Sigma. All the processes at a manufacturing site should be lean and integrated to ensure they run efficiently, and production is streamlined. Sensors and automation capabilities are also integral as they will generate data in real-time that can be shared automatically with the core business applications (ERP) and the Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs).

“All data is integrated online across sensors, micro-controls, PLC, shopfloor data connectors (like RFIDs, scanners) and control systems. This will mean decisions can be made quickly based on more accurate information. It will be critical to have metrics that compare targets to achievements. Every aspect of the production line should have a target to aim for, which can be monitored online using digital tools that assess whether the desired results have been achieved. Big data and analytics will also enable threshold-based reporting with a red/yellow/green alert system to identify potential production issues.

Additionally,

  • The Smart Factory pre-production process will also integrate capabilities such as simulation so that manufacturers can visualise future production requirements and run through scenarios to spot potential issues before moving into full production.
  • Additive manufacturing using 3D printing, wherever applicable, adds to production process alternatives.
  • Chip-enabled equipment leads to timely maintenance as also you can use analysis of production trends to predict when and where maintenance might be needed.”

How do you see emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, the internet of things, robotics, and automation shaping the smart factory of the future?

“Sensors and automation are already common in manufacturing, but in the Smart Factory, data entry will become a thing of the past because sensors will communicate directly with core business applications and the PLC to automate production process tracking and decision-making when production process needs intervention.

“Robotics contributes to mechanising the production process with less and less human intervention or involvement. This will significantly streamline production processes and cut down waste, but it will also impact the role of human operators in factory settings. It will create opportunities for more strategic oversight roles and less need to be involved in repetitive production workflows. Additive production technologies like 3D printing leverages computer-aided design and production with minimal human shopfloor labour.”

What challenges or barriers do you anticipate in adopting and implementing smart factory technologies by 2033?

“It all boils down to being able to invest in the new technologies and just as importantly in the re-skilling to ensure your employees can best exploit the capabilities offered by the Smart Factory, especially in big data analytics and intervene accordingly. Of course, this is challenging in manufacturing given how tight margins are so manufacturing CIOs need to carefully assess how best to allocate their precious investment dollars. At Rimini Street we would counsel against being pushed by the vendors into their timetable for software upgrades and the move to the cloud. How you evolve towards the Smart Factory depends on what your priorities are and where you see the greatest opportunities to deliver ROI to the business.”

How will the smart factory of 2033 impact the workforce and job roles within the manufacturing industry?

“The biggest change will be that no one will do data entry. The information will go straight from the sensors to the PLC or the ERP. Focusing on Lean Six Sigma and Data Analytics makes it even more critical. Workers on the shopfloor (unless replaced by robots or additive manufacturing is involved) have real-time online visibility to daily targets vs current achievement. Supervisors have similar access to real-time online data across multiple lines or work centres. The plant manager has real-time online access to all parts of the plant – pre, during and post-production.  There will be an important role for the workforce to oversee these aspects of the Smart Factory to ensure processes are running smoothly and intervening quickly when alerted to issues.

What role does cybersecurity play in securing smart factories and protecting sensitive data and intellectual property?

“The biggest change is the shift from hosting sensitive data onsite at the manufacturer to hosting it in the cloud. Understandably, manufacturers have been cautious about losing control of mission-critical data, especially if it causes downtime in the production line or supply chain. This means there will be a lot of focus on ensuring the highest levels of secure access to information in the cloud (using https) and manufacturers will also have to consider the connected issue of latency. Any slowdown in the delivery of information could impede production and competitiveness.”

How do you envision the supply chain being transformed by smart factory technologies and the ability to monitor and control processes in real time?

“Quite simply, it will mean you know at any point in time what is happening, and this monitoring can be conducted at every level within the business, from the shopfloor to the supervisor to the plant manager level. Also, data analysis with early warning systems allows intervening where issues might crop up, compromising the production process. Chip-enabled maintenance of equipment avoids unplanned downtime during real-time operations.

How do you think collaboration and partnerships between stakeholders, such as manufacturers, technology providers, and policymakers, will shape the development and deployment of smart factories?

“The biggest question for all these stakeholders is the impact on people. Manufacturers will have to work with various technology providers of automation, integration, and big data to redefine factories into Smart factories. The Smart Factory itself will redefine roles in manufacturing. Smart manufacturing processes will require fewer people on the shopfloor, but equally, it will create new roles to analyse the data being produced and make strategic decisions based on the available information. Policymakers must reconcile this redefinition and rationalisation of the human role in smart factories and ensure reskilling of a smart generation of employees accordingly.

What are the potential economic implications of smart factories on local and global manufacturing competitiveness?

“The goal of every manufacturer should be on time delivery in full of a high-quality product. The Smart Factory will mean companies have real-time visibility of production issues, so the manufacturers with the right people with the right skills will be able to exploit opportunities faster than competitors with less wastage and smarter and faster use of assets.”

David Howell

Dave Howell is a freelance journalist and writer. His work has appeared across the national press and in industry-leading magazines and websites. He specialises in technology and business. Read more about Dave on his website: Nexus Publishing. https://www.nexuspublishing.co.uk.

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