Human-robot collaboration, self-cleaning and self-healing materials, and mass customisation and 3D printing herald a new ‘golden age’ of production.
Today Arup, the global engineering and design consultancy, launches ‘Rethinking the Factory’, a report exploring the emerging trends, processes and technologies which are transforming the manufacturing landscape. The report examines how the introduction of new technologies such as 3D printing, self-cleaning and self-healing materials, human / robot collaboration will lead to faster, more efficient and environmentally friendly production.
Man, machines and materials
While many believe robots will replace humans in the factories of the future, the report, developed by Arup’s Foresight + Research + Innovation and Science and Industry teams, suggests collaboration between the two will be key. The integration of cameras and smart sensors already allow robots to adapt to their external environments. Increasingly intuitive, their ability to infer a full task after being shown just a portion of it will enable workers to serve as robot supervisors, operating machinery and controlling smart production processes such as programme and systems management and data analysis, rather than participating in manual labour. The increasing technicality of factories will mean that employees with STEM skills will be particularly sought after, further exacerbating the international shortage of highly skilled workers, set to reach 40 million by 2020.
Beyond machines, new materials have the potential to improve the production process and increase product performance. A variety of self-healing and self-cleaning materials are being developed – such as bio-inspired plastic, which replicate the strength, durability and versatility of a natural insect cuticles – which are capable of repairing damage without human intervention. These technologies will extend the lifetime of manufactured goods and reduce demand for raw materials.
Big data, technology and 3D printing
The utilisation of 3D printing – or more accurately, additive manufacturing – will allow manufacturing to be more mobile and dispersed. Factory locations are therefore likely to become both more varied and closer to the consumer, including the emergence of non-traditional spaces such as small offices in a city centre. This will allow production to take place closer to the point of use, lowering transport costs and emissions.
Intelligence based on big data, advanced analytics and the Internet of Things will create new opportunities for competitive advantage. Analysis of data will reveal detailed customer insights, identify new product opportunities sooner, and get new products and designs to market faster. Additive manufacturing and digital technologies will also make this mass customisation, faster, easier and more affordable.
Resilient and Adaptive Spaces
Flexibility will be critical to tackling changing consumer demands and shifting market trends. Factories will be adaptable, with modular building techniques to enable efficient re-scaling and diversification of production across various locations. This will also allow energy, water and material consumption to be managed more effectively in an increasingly constrained resource market, while producing an environment best suited to meet the multiple needs of its highly skilled workforce.
Using tools such as Building Information Modelling (BIM) in factory design, planning and management will play a critical role in allowing manufacturers to foresee and mitigate issues based on access to resources, location choices, weather risks and transportation needs.
The design of the factory will also be more focused on consumer experience, utilising the factory as a showroom. The concept of the ‘transparent factory’ will gain increased importance as more people get involved in making products or as they expect closer insight into how products are manufactured, especially at a customised level. The opportunity for factory owners and operators lies in adapting their existing spaces to enable these types of experiences to take place.
Duncan White, Science and Industry Leader at Arup, comments:
“The convergence of the physical and digital worlds means that manufacturers have to continue to adapt and adopt new processes quicker than ever before. While developing sustainable and resilient practices will be essential, having access to a skilled pool of workers will prove to be equally important and challenging as these changes are made. As such, it is critical that companies and policy-makers have a comprehensive understanding of the changing manufacturing landscape.”