Rick Robinson

Sep 29th 2017

5 Ways Factories are Tooling Up for the 2020s


Manufacturing industries are in the middle of the largest technology revolution to hit the factory floor since Henry Ford introduced the automotive assembly line more than a hundred years ago.

In fact, a strong case could be made that today’s manufacturing revolution is even more sweeping than the changes that gave birth to the now-traditional assembly line. The mass production factories of the 1920s were merely the culmination of manufacturing trends that had been developing for generations. In contrast, the “mass customization” factories of the 2020s and beyond will combine multiple new technologies to completely reshape how we think about making stuff.

Meanwhile, at Manufacturing Business Technology, Mark Dohnalek takes a deep dive into five ways that new technologies — and new ways of thinking — are set to transform the factory starting this year and into the next decade.

3-D Printing and the Art of the Prototype

At first glance, so-called 3-D printing technology seems to aim not at transforming factories but at making them disappear entirely, by allowing people to print up any manufactured product at home. But real life is not quite that simple. An optimized facility, staffed by production experts — in other words, a factory — will always have advantages over do-it-yourself home printing.

Inside the factory, 3-D printing may revolutionize many processes, but its first big impact is on prototyping, making samples of a new product. This is always necessary, because (for example) you can never be quite sure how an object will fit in your hand until you hold it. With 3-D printing, production teams can make a prototype, evaluate it and make an improved model in less time than it formerly took to make a single prototype.

Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR)

Like 3-D printing, these technologies play their biggest part in the product development stage. They allow development and production team members, in effect, to walk around and through blueprints, ensuring, for example, that components that are supposed to be accessible for maintenance really are accessible.

Even more important in the long run than helping the design and production team to prototype and visualize a product is helping to ensure that it meets the needs of the eventual users. These end users may well be military service members in the field, whose lives depend on the product working correctly, first time and every time.

Accelerated Product Life Cycles

This sounds a bit like jargon, and it is, but it makes a fundamental point. Advanced technologies are fast moving, and those service members in the field can’t wait for next year’s improved model. If improvements are available, they are needed as soon as possible — tomorrow, if not today.

This is related to the largest way that tomorrow’s factories differ from yesterday’s. Instead of producing thousands or millions of identical products, “mass customization” requires the modern factory to turn out endless variations on products, tailored to specific users and specific needs.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Human Intelligence

Keeping track of all these variations — and helping production teams develop them — ultimately relies on human intelligence, which alone can make final decisions on what suits the needs of human users. But AI can help smart people keep up with a sheer workload of innovations and variations that would otherwise be overwhelming.

For example, AIs are good at instantly spotting possible manufacturing errors, so that production teams can jump on the problem at once, instead of having to wait until possibly thousands of defective products have been manufactured, with resulting waste and delay.

Sustainable Manufacturing

In a nutshell, waste is wasteful. People have always known this (“waste not, want not”), but older limited technologies made a good deal of waste unavoidable. Technology progress along multiple fronts, from improved prototyping to a host of specific manufacturing technologies, is allowing us to eliminate wasteful processes, producing both environmental benefits and greater production efficiencies.

The traditional production-line factory made cars, computers and a host of other products affordable for the first time. But this came at the price of constraints such as uniformity and standardization. The new manufacturing era is breaking through these old constraints, making it possible for tomorrow’s factories — and even today’s — to turn out a vastly wider range of customized products able to meet users’ exact needs, in ways previously undreamed of.