How the Factory of the Future Impacts Us All

Today’s manufacturers are swamped with a combination of black swan events.  Between a worldwide pandemic, geopolitical unrest, and natural disasters, global supply chains are a tangled mess with no immediate solution in sight.  The COVID-19 pandemic and responses thereto have caused several problems for manufacturers.  Beyond supply chain issues, manufacturers are suffering delivery delays, increased costs, and uncertainty regarding the future and demand.  Even without these problems, manufacturing companies are under constant pressure to fill orders quickly at high quality, optimize efficiency while increasing flexibility, and improving sustainability and worker safety at all times.  

Modern problems require modern solutions.  It’s time to build the factory of the future.  Such a factory will need adaptable technology that can be reconfigured.  This may cost upfront, but easily-converted equipment will let companies accommodate new products and changes at low additional cost.  Similarly, businesses need to be able to scale production based on demand.  Artificial intelligence can simulate product demand based on current and projected levels to increase efficiency and maintain agility.  Most importantly, the factory of the future will have a versatile workforce able to handle new equipment and technology.  Cross-functional teams with the skills to interpret data and work in virtualized or AR environments will soon become a must.

Connecting technology across the product life cycle is something bound to become more common as time progresses.  Wearables can help monitor manufacturing workers for safety and productivity purposes.  Virtual twins can let facilities explore products and processes before incorporating them into the manufacturing process.  Industrial Internet of Things (IoT) can help monitor equipment for maintenance, depreciation, and potential process improvements.  Finally, these updates and innovations can come from anywhere thanks to the addition of cloud computing.  It’s a brave new world out there!  

Outside the factory, one thing companies should consider going forward is the usage of a value network instead of a supply chain.  Single source suppliers may cost less, but they offer companies less resilience during times of disruption.  Value networks made up of diverse groups can bring higher resilience to a company’s operations.  This way, alternatives are lined up in case the original plan runs into complications. 

Despite the need to plan for the future, a 2018 survey revealed that just 12% of companies had a mature factory of the future plan.  The #1 challenge most companies face is a lack of internal skills to develop digital solutions.  The steps to a transformation journey are as follows: evaluate opportunities for disruption in your industry, determine your maturity, plan and execute your strategy, and drive transformation success.  Transformation depends on people, process, and technology.  Leaving out one or more factors will prevent transformations from being successfully implemented.

More than improving an individual company, factories of the future can be good for the planet.  Rethinking just 5 areas of manufacturing could reduce emissions by an amount equal to elimination of all transportation emissions on Earth.  People and businesses alike need the planet to be livable in order to succeed in future generations.

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