There aren’t many absolutes in industry but the one thing that will surely prove true of Future Factories is that no two are ever likely to be exactly the same.
The specific design of a Future Factory will depend on a large number of factors, the first, most obvious one being whether it is a greenfield project or an upgrade of an existing facility.
Once that’s known, the main factors that will need to be considered will include the type of production (discrete vs. process manufacturing), the production technology, the degree of automation, time-to-customer, the need to respond to fluctuations in demand, scalability, the degree of customer and supplier integration, as well as product variance or CAPEX intensity. All of these variables will have a influence, to some extent, on the final design, focus, technologies and processes in the factory.
Given this context, two obvious questions pose themselves: First, is it possible to identify overarching framework conditions and trends that will influence every Future Factory project, independent of the factors listed above? And - secondly - can general ‘building blocks‘ be defined that will prove mandatory for every factory of the future?
In recent years global industrial production has been subject to an unprecedented series of geopolitical, technological and environmental shocks. Unfortunately, there is no reason to suppose that these will end any time soon. Therefore, companies must do their best to prepare for a host of complex, dynamic scenarios that, by definition, are almost impossible to reliably predict in advance.
Given the significant challenges that industry is now facing, perhaps it’s not so surprising that the need to build-in transparency, resilience and flexibility is increasingly being acknowledged. Fortunately, accomodating these fundamental requirements results in a series of specifications that will be applicable to any industrial structure of the future, specifications that can be grouped into five broad thematic areas.
These specifications will be equally applicable to the design of smaller, more flexible factories that are linked in factory networks but produce locally, for customers in the locality.
It’s also true to say that these will also go hand in hand with the modularization and standardization of industrial parks and the creation of digital consistency, from order entry to goods issue. At the same time, Future Factories will no longer be able to be conceived as closed, standalone units, but instead will be designed for intensive collaboration in cross-company value creation networks.
And finally, the planning processes must be designed to keep pace with the structures - significantly faster, located closer to operational activities, and typified by short-cycle, decision-making.
However, high speed, adaptability and flexibility can only be achieved if technological potential is consistently and fully exploited. This applies in particular to artificial intelligence, which will permeate every aspect of the factory of the future: starting with support for decision-making processes and extending to integration into production, for example, through process-integrated quality monitoring or remote condition detection via image recognition. In addition, consistent automation and the increased use of robotics, culminating - on occasion - in fully automated "lights-out factories" will play a particularly important role.
Of course, any factory of the future must also be designed to be as sustainable as possible - a goal that applies across all aspects of industry, and which is driven by the universal need to combat advancing climate change, cope with impending resource bottlenecks, as well as meet legal and societal expectations. What does this mean in an industrial context? Well, first and foremost, it requires production processes and environments that, as a minimum, support the economical use of resources, reduce energy consumption, and avoid Waste and CO2 emissions. Ultimately, the goal should be to strive to create CO2-neutral factories.
On the one hand, this requires practical measures, such as, for example, dispensing with the use of compressed air. On the other hand, there are also massive potential benefits from measures that, say, intelligently link the energy flows in production in order to allow insightful, large-scale energy monitoring. That, in turn, allows a deeper understanding of the energy consumption of processes and how they can be fully optimised. In new projects, there is even more potential that can be exploited, namely through employing sustainable construction methods and engineering flexibility into factory design, measures which will enable their continued usability, even in the event of unexpected market changes.
Finally, it’s important to both understand and accept that the circular economy will play an essential role in the factory of the future. On the one hand, this involves its conceptual implementation as well as its anchoring in planning and decision-making processes. In a practicl context, it also means addressing the comprehensive integration of processes that enable the physical dismantling, re-use, recycling and return of rejects to the supplier. In order to achieve the highest possible effectiveness and resource efficiency, these processes must be taken into account at the earliest possible stage of design and planning.
It’s not just the increasing degree of automation and the use of new technologies that are changing the roles and tasks of specialists and managers in the factory. The growing importance of transparency, changes in control, coordination and decision-making processes, as well as new challenges such as human-machine collaboration are all fuelling significant change, too.
One immediate consequence is that this will bring about new requirements for employee qualifications, not to mention new forms of work and cooperation. On the other hand, these changes in the work environment will also call for corresponding understanding and adaptation on the part of management.
The openness of collaboration and the easy availability and omnipresence of information are not conducive to traditional social structures, such as those predicated on dominant knowledge and rigid ‘top-down‘ management. Instead, they create the conditions for creating new, co-operative forms of organization and leadership principles, such as "servant leadership". Many of these approaches, often first conceived decades ago, will finally be given an opportunity to live, breathe and prove their worth in the factory of the future. Leadership, redefined for this new paradigm, must also possess the ability and will to recognize that new forms of learning and management methods will be needed at an early stage, and to actively exploit their potential.
And finally, it’s important to understand that the developments highlighted also mean that the factory as a social space can - and must – change to meet and accomodate them. Industrial environments are daily becoming cleaner and more open, more akin to modern office structures that offer a much more attractive working environment.
The developments we’ve outlined above answer the second question posed at the beginning of this article and, to a certain extent, define the necessary building blocks that will be needed for a successful factory of the future. It would be beyond the scope of this article to describe these building blocks in detail, but we’ve pinpointed the essential elements below.
Industrial manufacturing in the future will differ fundamentally in many respects from the processes and structures of today. Clearly, its evolution will also have consequences for building planning. The inherent flexibility that will be required will necessitate easy conversion options as well as a modular factory layout that can be aligned with the prevailing value stream. The corresponding multidirectional, fully scalable layout is defined on the one hand by the fact that only the floor, ceiling, column grid and walls are fixed, while machines, workstations and media supply remain movable. The other fundamental requirement is that the layout must be able to accomodate autonomous transport systems (e.g., possessing sufficient aisle width, intersection sizes etc.), provide for coordinated, integrated sensor systems, and permit end-to-end building automation (e.g., air conditioning, lighting).
The innovative organizational, production and logistics concepts at the heart of the factory of the future can only be realised if accompanied by an efficient, scalable and secure IT infrastructure. On the one hand, this involves the consistent use of operational technology (OT) Standards for edge devices or sensor technology, wireless Standards, applications for secure and effective data transmission in different circumstances, and the use of software and data platforms.
The built architecture must also be able to react resource-efficiently and flexibly to changing requirements by, for example, using cables as backbones to nodes and distribution points. These aspects must be integrated into the building design from the outset, in order to, for instance, to avoid potential sources of interference.
IT infrastructures must also have a comprehensive and evolvable security system and be "secure by design" wherever possible. This also includes a security policy that covers all important security aspects from benchmarking and assessment to penetration tests. Equally important is the need to segment networks (e.g., separation between office and factory floor systems), as well as implement state of the art endpoint security concepts for remote maintenance or authentication.
With regards to data management in the factory of the future, the "single source of truth" approach for master and transactional data will prove particularly important. Wherever possible, the data should remain where it originates and only be transferred elsewhere when absolutely necessary. Other key factors are the horizontal and vertical integration of data streams without media discontinuity, the automation of data processes, and the creation of conditions for integration into value creation networks and open data ecosystems, such as Catena X. To summarise, there needs to be a clear target vision when it comes to data management, and the design of a data architecture network designed in harmony with this will be essential for the eventual success of a Future Factory… it will need to be planned for at the earliest possible stage.
The development of smaller, more flexible factories within an integrated factory network will also require corresponding plant, which will be specified differently depending on the types of factories and criteria mentioned at the beginning of this article. The spectrum will range from highly specialized production concepts to basic plant modules that can be adapted to different processes and which - increasingly – will rely on low-cost automation approaches.
Other important requirements in the factory of the future will also include accomodating connectivity-enabled machines and the use of Standards for machine integration. This allows machine groups to be networked, which will offer significant advantages in terms of increasing efficiency, optimizing capacity utilization and creating comprehensive transparency across all manufacturing processes.
Robotics are increasingly becoming commoditized. This means that more and more standardized solution modules can be used and applications can be implemented quickly and cost-effectively. There are now many genuinely exciting solutions in this area.
For example, "soft bubble grippers" enable the most flexible handling options; robots equipped with LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology can navigate precisely in challenging environments and collect environmental information; drones can support inventory and maintenance tasks, or even complex vertical transport operations. And in robotics, too, the spread of quantum computing looks likely to become a game-changer, drastically increasing the performance of systems.
Logistics has long been one of the focal points when discussing Future Factory concepts. There will be several different approaches to this, depending on the type of factory in question. For example, self-navigating products that find their own way through production will play an important role, especially in small series with a large number of variants. Autonomous transport solutions will also be highly useful across all production types, ranging from automated route trains and RTLS (real-time tracking and localization systems) to geofencing, enabling almost 100 percent transparency. There are also new developments with great potential emerging in scalable and autonomous picking and storage solutions, systems which will allow innovative new warehouse geometries, with more densely-packed horizontal and vertical structures.
Planning and control processes – from S&OP to the factory floor to individual tools and operating resources – can already be extensively automated and digitized today. Currently, this results in partially autonomous adaptation. In order to keep pace with the dynamics of the environment, these tasks must no longer be designed cyclically, but viewed instead as a continuously evolving process, one in which AI is constantly being used to simulate and fine-tune for efficiency. Numerous solutions now exist – for example, for process mining in information flow optimization – and these solutions do not require specialized, in-depth software knowledge and can be implemented in virtually any Future Factory.
Digital twins can be developed not only for products, but also for buildings, factories and production processes. They enable real-time monitoring, realistic simulation plus validation, and are therefore a worthy basis for flexible and efficient production. For example, in the monitoring of quality and production processes, individual process and machine parameters (e.g., in bolting operations) can be adjusted autonomously and in real time. The basis for this will be the permanent, ongoing collection of relevant data, which will constantly be analyzed by AI models.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the factory of the future, however, will be need to supply intensive ongoing support to employees at a wide variety of levels. In one respect, this could entail physical relief, for example through the use of assistance systems, or the automatic configuration of the workplace according to user profiles.
Conversely, support will also be provided through better availability of knowledge, for example through the contextualized provision of information, the use of AI/ML algorithms to analyze process parameters and communicate relevant results directly to employees, the use of worker guidance systems and introduction of digital factory floor management solutions.
Last but not least, the ongoing need for flexibility will mean that tasks could rapidly change, which means that knowledge about machines and workplaces will also need to be transferred quickly and effectively. This challenge will need to be met at several levels in the factory of the future - for example, through AI-supported, immersive or blended learning, remote support in work processes, and virtual onboarding, prior to getting hands-on with the actual processes.
Hopefully, we have demonstrated that the answer to the two questions posed at the beginning of this article are a resounding ‘yes‘. Despite the enormous number of potential variables that can come into play when considering the Future Factory concept, there are common and universal framework conditions and trends that every ambitious project must take into account.
The solutions will vary, of course, as will the weighting and design of the general building blocks. To determine which blocks will be necessary and then sustainably implement them, a holistic perspective on the overall topic will be needed, as well as a comprehensive, strategic roadmap that covers every essential aspect.