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Trends in 21st Century Factory Automation


Henry Ford’s introduction of the assembly line to the manufacturing of automobiles is often cited as a pinnacle achievement in the culminating moments of the Second Industrial Revolution. In hindsight, while this innovation may seem to have been a lightning strike of brilliance, nothing could be further from the truth. Historians trace the original notion of the assembly line to as far back as 1104 AD with the founding of the Venetian Arsenal. The Arsenal was the manufacturing powerhouse of naval combat capability for the Republic of Venice. At its height, 16,000 workers using prefabricated, standardized parts could build a warship in a day, with a canal taking the place of a mechanized assembly line.

“The future is less about mass production and more about mass customization.”

While our retrospection of factory and manufacturing automation is a bit hazy due to the passage of time, the capabilities and technologies of future factories are increasingly coming into sharp focus. In an effort to drive down the unit price and maximize profit margins, factory automation has historically served to reduce manufacturing costs, eliminate variability in product quality, and rapidly produce commodities in high volume. Factory automation has been successful to that end, but the future is less about mass production and more about mass customization. That is to say, one-size-fits-all products will increasingly give way to products that are customized to match the specific wants and desires of each consumer. Thus factories will have to become extremely adaptable while also making strides in connectivity and energy efficiency to remain competitive. Factory automation today is at the equivalent maturity of the mainframe era of computing just before the personal computer revolution. Thankfully, many new factory automation-enabling technologies are emerging to help fuel the next “Industrial Revolution 3.0”

Not Your Grandpa's Robots


When most people think of factory automation, they think of robots. The majority of robots found in today's factories are purpose built. With a singular focus on production, contemporary robots remain blissfully unaware of their environment and many are placed behind cages for the safety of their human co-workers. The next generation of robotic factory workers will not be so myopic, thanks to the integration of a wide array sensors and intelligence based on artificial neural networks.

Baxter, a manufacturing robot from Rethink Robotics, is an example of what engineers are building for tomorrow’s factories. With a starting price of $25,000, Baxter is extremely affordable as far as industrial manufacturing robots are concerned. These adaptive robots can be trained to perform a variety of tasks such as machine tending, packing/unpacking, line loading, or even tidying up, all without the need for complex software rewrites or hardware swap outs. For example, Baxter can be reprogrammed to perform different functions simply by having a human trainer manually manipulate the robot arms through the series of desired motions. In other words, Baxter learns by performing tasks taught to it by a hands-on human teacher, not by having an engineer perform the equivalent of robot surgery to rewire and reprogram its innards.

Furthermore, next generation factory robots are being freed from their cages and designed to work intimately alongside humans. These robots are performing the heavy lifting and repetitive work so a human worker is free to concentrate on tasks that require the dexterity or analysis that only a human can provide. In short, we are going to increasingly see the emergence of human/robot manufacturing teams in our factories.


New Machines, New Materials

By now, most people have been exposed to the concept of a 3D printer that enables factories to use more efficient additive manufacturing techniques as compared to the subtractive methods used in milling machines. While most people's exposure to 3D printers has been limited to the explosion of low-cost, plastic-based printers that sit on the desktop in many homes and makerspaces, industrial 3D printing is far more advanced. TNO, a Netherlands-based research group, recently demonstrated an additive manufacturing machine that uses 100 platforms moving about a carousel to deposit a variety of materials such as plastics, metals, and ceramics to build an entire product.

“Conveyor belt systems are fixed…Reroute the virtual assembly line on a moment's notice to reflect real-time demand"

Today we often associate the idea of the assembly line with conveyor belts that shuttle raw materials from worker to worker until a final product shoots out the end. However, conveyor belt systems are fixed and impossible to reconfigure without significant additional cost. Enter the notion of a Portable Assembly Line that replaces conveyor belts with battery-free autonomous vehicles that move the work-in-progress from station to station. The use of robotic vehicles will allow Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) to reroute the virtual assembly line on a moment's notice to reflect the real-time demand gleaned from a company's Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) tool. This will allow adaptive factories to produce exactly what the market demands based on sales data, thus relying less on vulnerable sales forecasts.

Nanotechnology, exotic composites, and embedded MEMS technologies will continue to alter the landscape of factories in order to account for new manufacturing techniques that result from building products that incorporate new materials. For example, engineers are studying ways to replace large autoclaves associated with today's composite manufacturing. One promising solution is to incorporate microwaves to assist in quickly curing large or high-volume composite components. Microwave curing also offers the advantage of reduced energy consumption and the ability to do partial curing; meaning different parts of an assembly could be cured at different rates allowing for novel assembly techniques not possible with traditional autoclaves.

Energy Efficient

Increasingly, manufacturing operations recognize that energy efficiency is a key component to driving down overhead and raising profit margins. Factories are looking to reduce their dependency on the electrical grid by adopting onsite renewable energy sources. Leveraging the most abundant renewable energy source at a given geographic location will increasingly make economic sense in addition to being seen as environmentally conscientious. Tesla’s so-called Gigafactory, projected to have a final 1.9 million square feet of space and currently under construction in Nevada, is expected to generate more renewable energy than it will need to operate, thanks to its leveraging of geothermal, solar, and wind sources.

Another massive opportunity for factories will be the adoption of high efficiency motors. Factories consume upwards of 40% of the electrical energy produced in the world, with motors alone consuming almost 30%. Renewable energy sources and battery technology are helping to address the supply side of the energy equation, while efficient motors help to address the demand portion. Machines must be designed to allow for easy motor retrofits to minimize the cost and downtime associated with future upgrades.

If You Build It, They Will Manufacture

Modern factories are finely-tuned systems that drive value into our economy by transforming raw materials into finished goods, all the while having to contend with competing forces such as regulatory compliance, security concerns, quality assurance, and maintaining cost effectiveness. Thus changing up production lines is no trivial matter and many factory managers are rightfully conservative when it comes to tinkering with their industrial automation systems. But in an era where costs are plummeting with regard to barriers in establishing manufacturing capability, it’s not inconceivable to see the startup effect hit factory scale manufacturing. This will be compounded by a growing desktop manufacturing market that will remove the need for large industrial factories to produce lower end consumer goods. While it may seem doom and gloom for this perspective, savvy factory operators will see a golden opportunity to shed low profit margin business in favor of taking on more lucrative opportunities that can leverage these emerging factory automation technologies.

Some technologists envision a world in which factories forego fixed infrastructure and become mobile so that the factory can move to the location of the cheapest raw materials instead of having those resources trucked to the factory, thus reducing transportation costs as part of the unit pricing equation. A high level of automation plays a part in this scenario. Others see a renaissance in localized factories thanks to the plummeting costs of setting up a factory. These so-called “micro-factories” could take cheap, semi-finished products and do final assembly and customization in the local marketplace. This in turn means that shipping costs to the consumer could be reduced, resulting in less expensive unit prices. There would also be the additional benefit of providing jobs right in the localities served by these new on-shore factories. Still, others envision a future of so-called “lights-out” manufacturing during which factories operate on a sort of autopilot that requires no human interaction whatsoever for long periods of time.

Whatever the future may hold for factory automation, technology will continue to build on centuries of amazing human innovation and ingenuity. The factory of tomorrow will no doubt be more capable, adaptable, and energy efficient while yielding cost effective, highly customized products to meet the demands of customers the world over.
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