The Digital Factory: Rethinking from the Ground Up with Industry 4.0 in Mind

Building a digital factory worthy of calling itself an Industry 4.0 operation takes time and capital. But what if manufacturers could rebuild their operations right now, to have all of the capabilities they want, without any constraints?

Building a digital factory worthy of calling itself an Industry 4.0 operation takes time and capital. But what if manufacturers could rebuild their operations right now, to have all of the capabilities they want, without any constraints? Using current trends as a guide, we can make predictions about what these factories would look like, and how they would accelerate innovation.

Everything Old is New Again

With no limitations, it’s easy to imagine a sci-fi future for manufacturing, with factories filled with processes driven by artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR). Those technologies can certainly be a part of manufacturing’s future, but technology won’t be the basis for the changes. Fundamentals will. 

A real contender for market leadership will build on the basics of data, people and material, and look at how technology allows a factory to leverage each of these elements better. Creating the ideal digital factory will begin with a factory operating system that ensures data is flowing, and the operation handles materials dynamically, so people can access and use them easily and quickly. The need for speed will continue to drive innovation. Competitive pressures and customer demands require the fastest possible production and fulfillment today, and there’s no reason to think that things will slow down in the future. 

More Data, More Insights

Factory floors in the future will make use of much more data than today. Think back to a few decades ago, and compare it to how much more easily we access data today. Storage and devices are incredibly cost-effective today, and it just takes a few clicks to find the information you need. Operators can use a tablet or smartphone to access time series or other data streams to make intelligent, informed decisions to improve product quality, reduce risks and improve workflows. 

Furthermore, today’s factory floor is more instrumented than in the past, generating more data for analysis than ever before. An electronics manufacturer can monitor and track humidity levels via sensors, and a factory operating system that alerts operators when there is a risk of electrostatic discharge. It will be common for a tech to walk up to a machine, scan it with a mobile device and know exactly what’s going on – just as easily as using Shazam to find out the name of a song. People won’t ever have to guess. They’ll be able to know information at a moment’s notice, which will allow them to do their jobs more proficiently and safely.

Thanks to the internet, teams already can collaborate and communicate with ease, whether they’re across the facility or across the country. Factories have migrated from paper-based processes to use laptops, tablets, wearables, and smartphones for data collection and sharing data in near real-time. Going forward, factories will capture even more types of data, including images and video. This will expand teams’ ability to detect when production or product quality veers outside acceptable limits and will set things right, far before an employee collecting data manually and comparing it to rules could.

Dynamic Material Handling

To keep up with a continually faster pace, factories will move toward simultaneous production and development workflows, replacing the sequential model of design, then production. As a result, they’ll need to find solutions that ensure materials are available when changes are necessary. 

Factories may adopt processes that provide much more granular data, for example, not just recording the fact that a facility received 10,000 screws, but tracking where each is used. This will allow for greater visibility into where materials are at a given time.  

Some innovative (and frankly fun) ideas are emerging, such as “vending machines” on the factory floor that enable operators to access the materials they need on demand. The machines, connected to the factory operating system, also track materials use and record who used them, which contributes valuable data as products are traced through to completion. 

Empowered People 

A Industry 4.0 factory will not only improve processes and data flow, but it will also empower its people. Leading manufacturers will elevate manufacturing operators from the drudgery of repetitive tasks by freeing them to make fuller use of their skills and expertise to improve products and processes, supported by new tech. 

For example, additive manufacturing, often used for custom products, can also enable manufacturing operators to solve production problems quickly. If manufacturing operators notice that equipment isn’t placing a part correctly, they can use additive manufacturing to quickly create a jig that solves the issue. Voilà: iterative process improvement on the factory floor. Empowered manufacturing operators that see the potential for improvement can share their ideas, test them, and measure results to ensure better outcomes. 

When all of these changes occur, a factory will also look different. Futuristic factories will be places employees like to work – and even have fun – while working to improve output and reach goals.

Those are the kinds of factories that will push innovation forward and change the world.