The Factory of the Future

Group of people looking at a laptop

COVID-19’s impact on the global manufacturing industry is undeniable. In the wake of the pandemic, supply chains became volatile and demand for products changed. Some manufacturers had to ramp up productions to cope with an increase in demand, while others saw it dry up. 

Many factories were unprepared to deal with such a significant and swift change. Because, while manufacturers have been automating physical tasks for years, there have been little, if any, moves to transform higher functions that could be useful to deal with the volatility.  

“When you take a look on the shop floor in manufacturers, that's often where the innovation stops,” said Jason Chester, director, Global Channel Programs at InfinityQS in Fairfax, VA. “The level of innovation from an information technology perspective has really been lacking. The focus over the last decade or two in manufacturing has been around automating the physical manufacturing process, replacing manual tasks with automated tasks, automated machinery, robotics and visual inspection systems. Information and data management has really been quite outdated and is still quite outdated. What the pandemic did has really brought into focus the challenges that that environment was having.” 

As a result, the pandemic has placed a newfound urgency on the need for manufacturing organizations to finally embrace or accelerate their plans for digital transformation.     

Closing the Data Gap
One of the biggest logistical setbacks for many manufacturers during the pandemic was the lack of access to real-time data. In normal times, many of these organizations had only collected data about their operations on a weekly or monthly basis. But to cope with the volatile supply issues, they need to know what is happening in real-time.  

Without this access, Chester said, “we can't adapt our manufacturing operations to what we need. We can't see very quickly where we're suffering performance losses or where we are suffering quality issues or where we potentially have bottlenecks in the manufacturing operations.”  

By making real-time data available to the right people at the right time, factories can make informed decisions and provide actionable insights about where bottlenecks are occurring, where quality issues are occurring and where yield loss is occurring, according to Chester. 

“What the pandemic did was draw people towards digital transformation,” he said. “We can look in the manufacturing operations, look at where we suffered significant problems and then really focus on addressing that particular challenge there.”  

Manufacturing a Successful Transformation
In the wake of the pandemic, the next era of automation in manufacturing is expected to create the factory of the future and be driven by cognitive automation, rather than physical automation. 

“That next drive will be where the major gains in efficiency, productivity, flexibility, agility and risk management will start to add very significant impacts on manufacturing performance,” Chester said. “Ultimately, it will improve their ability to grow, to innovate, to access new markets and deliver shareholder value.” 

To make these digital transformation efforts a success, several considerations must be taken into account. According to Chester, often companies go into the process blindly without understanding how to get the most value out of it. 

A good start in getting it right is to understand how each process relates to the other and identify where the particular problem area might be. It is these problem areas that should be prioritized for digital transformation.   

Another area that Chester believes is vital to the success of a digital transformation project is standardization or being able to compare and measure everything. 

“If we go from an environment where we've got lots of islands of data, as I call them, a lot of isolated systems, a lot of manual processes or legacy systems, inevitably, what manufacturers have is a lot of nonstandardization across data. If you try and plug all of that together into a unified centralized repository, then that becomes incredibly difficult to get the benefits of digital transformation.” 

Once organizations have digitally transformed their manufacturing operations it is likely a new type of factory will emerge. The question is: When will the factory of the future become the reality? 

“In the next five years, probably not, but within the next 10 to 15 years, manufacturing will look very substantially different than it does today,” said Chester.