What will the factory floor of the future look like? What is the reality behind the hype? How will the new normal of the post-Covid world affect it?
Industry 4.0 – no going back
Many parts of the manufacturing sector had been hard hit by the economic downturn during Covid, but an even greater impact would be the seismic influence on the sector of Industry 4.0 (4IR). The power of the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D-printing, robotics, sensors, cloud computing and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will continue to be applied to increase automation and unlock new efficiencies for businesses in a hypercompetitive world.
Robotics will increase the range of automated tasks, speeding up production and the potential for increased customisation. This will maximise uptime for factory production lines, as well as volume and quality of items being produced.
Humans are underrated – Elon Musk
While Industry 4.0 put smart technology at the forefront of manufacturing, the next generation, 5.0, would see increased collaboration between humans and smart systems. This is considered a more realistic and exciting vision of the future. Combining humans and robots, experts say, will merge the speed and accuracy of industrial automation with the cognitive, critical thinking skills of humans.
Cobots not Robots
With increased use of technology such as Virtual Reality, humans will be able to collaborate more deeply with machines. This type of approach is already delivering powerful results for certain manufacturers. In Canada, an electronic manufacturing company found that production of their high-end speakers could be increased by 50% simply by adding a human counterpart to a robotic process.
This leaves us with the question on not only what the future factory will look like, but also where it would be located to achieve maximum efficiency and resilience.
Is reshoring the answer?
Covid-19 had proved that a global manufacturing network can leave businesses vulnerable in significant ways. What happens when an international supply chain is disrupted as it had been in recent months? The critical shortage of microchips is affecting global industries, from automotive to healthcare. What happens when we cannot access parts and components we need? Reshoring is a trend which could protect markets from a more unpredictable future of international supply and demand, but predicting the future is a tricky business. There is no denying that the most successful factory floors of the future will be those which are most responsive and agile, not matter where they are situated.
Covid-19 led to inspirational stories of agile thinking emerging from the manufacturing sector – from alcohol production lines turning to producing hand sanitiser and manufacturers switching their engineering skills to producing medical ventilators. These companies had the ability to transfer complex technical aspects to state-of-the-art production facilities with minimum disruption. To survive in an unpredictable future, manufacturers may need access to this type of technology, as well as the imagination to be ready for anything.
Agility means win or lose
The future will undoubtedly bring more and smarter technology delivering better value and more customised products to the marketplace. These products would most likely need to be delivered on-demand and quicker than ever before. This can be accomplished through smart collaboration between humans and computers.
For many companies, there will be opportunities for new ventures, but maybe in unfamiliar sectors with unfamiliar manufacturing requirements. To feed this type of innovation, outsourcing would become more viable as would reshoring driven by more agile, cost-effective and scalable manufacturing partnerships.