In Industry 4.0, companies are converging information technology and operational technology, to create supply chains that have a pulse on customer wants and can deliver on demand. This need to streamline has given rise to “smart factories” — factories that synthesize new technologies to boost efficiency and precision, and respond fast to design iterations so companies can produce more of what customers actually want. Sixty-seven percent of industrial manufacturers say they have ongoing smart factory initiatives, and this number is only going to grow.
In the second installment of this two-part blog series, we're exploring how some of the latest technologies can drive factories into the future — and whether they are enough.
Similar to AR, 3D printing allows for the quick modeling of products to reduce risk, save costs and push faster iterations. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, some industries used the technology for design prototyping, but it wasn’t cost-effective. Now it’s cheaper and more widely employed across a variety of industries, but many are still struggling to find a scalable function for the technology that goes beyond prototyping.
“The biggest advantage of 3D printing is the ability, as I put it, ‘to move from design for manufacturing to manufacturing the design.’”
Pete Basiliere, Research Director at Gartner
This brings us back to the role of smart factories in end-to-end supply chain digitization. Today’s companies can’t afford to “design for manufacturing.” While this strategy is great for mass production, it’s not good for customizing to fast-changing customer preferences. And in today’s rapid-fire marketplace, if you can’t deliver on customer expectations, your brand won’t last. This is why the real potential value in 3D printing isn’t just quick prototyping. It’s the opportunities it creates for “manufacturing the design” — modifying and producing goods on short notice based on what’s selling. 3D printing could release manufacturers from the trap of producing identical units in bulk, and free them up to iterate different versions of products quickly, creating lines that are more customized to consumers.
The days of lines of factory operators working heads-down could soon be behind us. With collaborative robots or “cobots,” human and machines will work collaboratively to drive production lines. Integrating cobots has the potential not only to improve efficiency, but also to increase worker safety.
With the fear of job replacement looming large, robots in manufacturing remain something of a controversial subject. But the most likely scenario in the factory of the future will be a collaborative one in which robots take on a larger portion of the kinetic aspects of work, with humans taking on roles supervising and maintaining the machines. Auto manufacturers are one of a few verticals already championing in-factory robotics: they use them to weld heavy parts together, and attach doors, roofs, and other components. Still, we’re still decades away from having robots that are sophisticated enough to oversee final assembly. For now, this process is still being entrusted to human judgment.
The real value of collaborative robots is their ability to automate routine, often strenuous tasks, freeing up factory managers to focus on the bigger picture — planning production flows and assembly lines.
As with all of the smart factory innovations covered in this article, robotics won’t benefit your operations if they’re not embedded in a larger digital strategy that will allow you to gather data, identify and communicate issues, and iterate improvements.
In fact, while they may create initial short-term benefits, none of the technologies we’ve just discussed will truly benefit manufacturers if communication is not built into every aspect of their operations. Factories may look futuristic with these new tools, but without orchestrating better communication and collaboration internally and across their whole ecosystem, the businesses they serve will not be able to get products to market fast enough for customers — thus rendering them outdated.
The real goal is to create a global ecosystem linking suppliers, partners and even customers through a connected supply chain. Reducing operational and informational siloes will grant factories a two-way flow of information. The results will be more real-time optimization, faster decision-making, and the kind of customer-centric innovation that will truly drive your factory into the future.