8 Ways Technology will Change Manufacturing
From advanced robotics in R&D labs to computer vision in warehouses, technology is making an impact on every step of the manufacturing process.
“Lights-out manufacturing” refers to factories that operate autonomously and require no human presence. Because they don’t need human supervision, they don’t require lighting, and can consist of several machines functioning in the dark.
While this may sound like science fiction, these kinds of factories have been a reality for more than 15 years.
The Japanese robotics maker FANUC has been operating a “lights-out” factory since 2001, where robots build other robots completely unsupervised for nearly a month at a time.
“Not only is it lights-out,” said FANUC VP Gary Zywiol, “we turn off the air conditioning and heat too.”
To imagine a world where robots do all the physical work, one simply needs to look at the most ambitious and technology-laden factories of today.
In June 2018, the Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com unveiled a fully automated storage and shipping facility in Shanghai.
The factory is outfitted with twenty industrial robots that can pick, pack, and transfer packages with no human presence or oversight.
Without robots, it would take as many as 500 workers to fully staff this 40K square foot warehouse — instead, the factory requires only five technicians to service the machines and keep them working.
As industrial technology grows increasingly pervasive, this wave of automation and digitization is being labelled “Industry 4.0,” as in the fourth industrial revolution.
So, what does the future of factories hold?
To answer this, we took a deep dive into 8 different steps of the manufacturing process, to see how they are starting to change:
Product R&D: A look at how platforms are democratizing R&D talent, the ways AI is helping materials science, and how the drafting board of tomorrow could be an AR or VR headset.
Resource Planning & Sourcing: On-demand decentralized manufacturing and blockchain projects are working on the complexities of integrating suppliers.
Operations Technology Monitoring & Machine Data: A look at the IT stack and platforms powering future factories. First, factories will get basic digitization, and further along we’ll see greater predictive power.
Labor Augmentation & Management: AR, wearables, and exoskeletons are augmenting human capabilities on the factory floor.
Machining, Production & Assembly: Modular equipment and custom machines like 3D printers are enabling manufacturers to handle greater demand for variety.
Quality Assurance (QA): A look at how computer vision will find imperfections, and how software and blockchain tech will more quickly be able to identify problems (and implement recalls).
Warehousing: New warehouse demand could bring “lights-out” warehouses even faster than an unmanned factory, with the help of robotics and vision tracking.
Transport & Supply Chain Management: Telematics, IoT, and autonomous vehicles will bring greater efficiency and granularity for manufacturers delivering their products.
Factory of the Future
Despite representing 11.6% of US GDP, manufacturing remains an area of relatively low digitization — meaning there’s plenty of headroom for automation and software-led improvements. In fact, in 2017, 76% of manufacturers reported having a smart factory initiative in the works.
Manufacturing is deeply changing with new technology, and nearly every manufacturing vertical — from cars, to electronics, to pharmaceuticals — is implicated. The timelines and technologies will vary by sector, but most steps in nearly every vertical will see improvement.
Read on for a closer look at how technology is transforming each step of the manufacturing process.