The Factory of the Future

3D printing, robotics, AI and IoT – but fewer jobs?

Manufacturing plays an essential role in the economies of both advanced and developing nations. According to a recent McKinsey Report it now accounts for approximately 16 percent of global GDP and 14 percent of employment. Changes in consumer demand and advances in technology bring both challenges and opportunities for the sector. How are business adapting to meet these challenges and which technologies are shaping the factory of the future?

Factory tech today
Factories have already adopted new technologies with a view to increasing productivity and reducing costs. 3D printing has made it easier for manufacturers to test out new product designs and create intricate composite parts. Robotics has long played a key role in factory processes, but the factory robots of today are far more advanced, with improved dexterity and social capabilities that allow them to work side-by-side with human employees. Currently, factories also use Internet of Things connectivity – power plants, for instance, keep track of energy usage and send push notifications to alert overseers of any changes or potential issues. Virtual and Augmented Reality are used to train engineers, with huge potential for AR in particular when it comes to maintenance and assembly. Right now, factories are still limited by the expense of innovation and outdated systems, but the adoption that has already been achieved has changed the face of production. Looking forward, what tech can we expect to see in the factories of the future?

Inside the factory of the future
The factory floor might already be home to new tech, but future factories will be very different environments. As prices drop, adoption will grow. For starters, factories will be powered by renewable energy, perhaps in the form of an integrated solar roof as pioneered by Tesla’s GigaFactory. 3D printing will be used as standard when the price of industrial-grade hardware drops. Industrial 3D printers will initially create prototypes and small parts for bigger products (like aircraft, for example) but will they be used to print entire items (yes, like aircraft). Another massive change will come in the form of cobots – AI-powered, robotic colleagues that can perform as well as, if not better, than human employees. It’s likely that there will still be human foremen and overseers, but the majority of the workforce will be made up of advanced robots. They’ll be a cut above your average bot, using shared neural networks to self-learn. Imagine if an industrial robot could also perform CPR, or understand the emotions of a human co-worker. Talking of networks, there’s nothing more connective than the Internet of Things. Manufacturers already use IoT to monitor productivity through data analytics and visualisation, but the operation of future factories will rely almost entirely on connected devices. It doesn’t end there – companies have still got to physically get their products to clients and consumers. This might mean packing them in to the back of an automated truck, sending them off via drones or even by courier robots, as implied by Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert at TechCrunch Disrupt London earlier this month.

How will future tech disrupt manufacturing?
The use of new tech in factories has improved efficiency, productivity and quality, as well as making the factory floor a safer place to work by automating heavy machinery. The ability to respond to specific customer demand through 3D printing has and will continue to change retail. Consumers will be able to personalise purchases with no extra cost to manufacturers and retailers. Companies that use time-efficient drones and automated vehicles to deliver products will create a new standard for deliveries. Augmented Reality applications will enhance product quality and help to effectively fix and maintain hardware. However, the adoption of advanced robots powered by ubiquitous information could make the use of AR obsolete. . . an all-knowing robot simply wouldn’t need an AR guide. All of this sounds positive until you consider the effect on jobs. There’s no getting away from the devastation that automation will cause to employment levels. In the last six years, over 300,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in the U.S. alone. Manufacturers won’t be replacing all of their human workforce, but the people they do employ will need to be skilled in data analytics and engineering in order to work alongside advanced tech.

The factory of the future will showcase all of the innovative technology currently under development today. This will mainly include 3D printing, advanced robotics, AI and IoT. Some factories are already using these technologies to enhance operations, which has disrupted traditional manufacturing and challenged legacy companies. The barriers to wider tech adoption within manufacturing include integrating innovation into outdated systems, the affordability of tech and fears over mass unemployment. However, when set against the positives of a factory that runs seamlessly, creating high-quality products for all industries and maximising productivity through tireless robotics, the benefits may be well worth the risks.

Is increased productivity worth the devastation of human employment levels? Will you embrace the factories of the future?